Running on fumes

How e-cigarettes are taking a drag off the smoking industry

Nigel Sumerlin

My friend Jeremy entered the tiny shop, and as the door closed behind him, he found himself in a room filled with thick, sweet-smelling haze.

From behind the counter, a young man greeted him. “Welcome to Elements Vape! How can I help you?”

“Just browsing for some juice,” Jeremy told him.

“Awesome, dude.” He slid a laminated sheet across the glass counter. “Let me know if you want to taste anything.”

As Jeremy perused Elements’ wide selection of flavors, the man behind the counter lifted a metal device to his lips, inhaled, and blew a massive four-foot cloud of vapor into the room. Immediately the air smelled like blueberries.

Behind the counter stretched a wall filled with e-liquid varying in nicotine content and flavor. Above the shelves of juice was a long line of cigarette packs.

Fifteen years ago, e-cigarettes did not exist. Now they are seen everywhere from street corners to coffee shops. E-cigarette users call the act of inhaling vapor from an e-cigarette vaping. Between 2013 and 2014, use of the word more than doubled, leading the Oxford dictionary to announce vape as its 2014 word of the year. In just three years, Lincoln has gone from offering e-cigs only at gas stations and traditional smoke shops to hosting six stores that exclusively sell e-cigarette merchandise and liquid. In 2014, Union College students saw the first rule banning the use of e-cigarettes for students. It is not an exaggeration to say that vaping has gone viral.

An e-cigarette is an electronic nicotine delivery system pairing a battery and heating element to vaporize a liquid nicotine solution which is then inhaled by the user. Since e-cigs have become popular, many variations have emerged, ranging from disposable and cigarette-shaped devices to customizable machines that enable the user to quickly inhale large amounts of vapor.

The expansion of the e-cigarette industry has been accompanied by controversy. Many tout e-cigs as a smoking cessation tool. Others worry about associated risks. In the last five years, a research battle has raged, producing compelling evidence for both sides of the argument.

Opponents of vaping claim that vaporization of the two main ingredients in the nicotine solution known as e-liquid deposits dangerous carcinogens in the lungs. Opponents also worry about vaping’s appeal to children. With flavors like bubble gum and fruit loops, middle and high school students are picking up vaping more easily than they would smoking. The number of high school students reporting they vaped has tripled in three years.

Proponents of vaping claim that it is cleaner, smells better and doesn’t compromise lung function as smoking does. Furthermore, it has a clear history of effectiveness in helping people quit cigarette smoking.

While vaping has risks, research suggests that they pale in comparison to the dangers of smoking tobacco. Cigarettes contain hundreds of times the amount of carcinogens found in e-liquid, and the inhalation of smoke is far more damaging than the inhalation of nanoparticles.

Because the emergence of e-cigarettes is so recent, much of the evidence for and against vaping is incomplete. It will take time to truly understand the effects of e-cigarettes on the human body. But while vaping may or may not be safe, smoking cigarettes is known to be deadly.

I think back to that row of abandoned cigarette packs on the shelf at Elements. Each one represents someone who was able to quit the dangerous habit of smoking cigarettes because he switched.  

What do you think? Should society reject or embrace this innovation?

Nigel is a freshman pursuing a double major in history and psychology.