Today’s (long) post looks at the social, market, and government forces at work surrounding the so-called electronic cigarette (also known as the e-cig, personal vaporizer, PV, etc.).
First a brief introduction to the technology.
The main component of interest is so-called e-liquid (also called juice). This is a combination of Propylene Glycol and Vegetable Glycerin, sometimes one or the other exclusively, and possibly with some amount of nicotine, flavoring, and distilled water.
This liquid constitutes the consumable portion of the technology. This is similar to how the smoke is the only consumable part of a traditional cigarette. The rest of it is there to enable or improve some aspect of the experience.
The other end of the technology contains a battery. This delivers electricity to the device. There are many forms of battery, some with extra circuits added for automatic or manual activation, for protection against battery or device fault, or for user control over device output.
The device itself has four main parts:
- A connection to the battery
- A mouthpiece
- A resistance coil
- A feed for juice to reach the resistance coil and a feed for vapor to reach the mouthpiece
The two main features of a device are the coil and feed, centering around how efficient and how much vapor they produce. Other features include materials used in the feed, whether the feed includes a reservoir for extra juice, whether the coil can be replaced manually.
Gauging Nicotine Delivery
The delivery of nicotine depends on a number of factors including the device (how hot the coil gets, how much juice and air touch the coil directly (how much uncovered surface it has; operation tends to cause some residue to become attached to the coil surface reducing the heat and efficiency a bit)), battery charge, mouthpiece, juice type (base nicotine level in the juice, other flavoring and ingredient proportions may affect this as well), and probably the individual user’s lung capacity and draw (how they inhale/pull the vapor from the device into their mouth/lungs).
But the nicotine delivery levels for traditional cigarettes vary along many of these lines as well.
The fact with both is that the user that has an efficient delivery system will likely take less overall puffs for their preferred blood level of nicotine than someone with an inefficient delivery system. But given even a modestly efficient system (ie, any significant portion of nicotine is delivered at all), the user can simply adjust their use level to compensate for receiving less nicotine from an underperforming system.
Why Vaporized Nicotine Enables Smoking Cessation
First it should be noted that smoking is highly correlated with negative health outcomes in the long term. At present the research does not suggest any sort of the same correlation for vaporized nicotine products, but that does not mean there isn’t a long-term impact either negative or positive with using them.
But the science is in on the fact that inhaling vapor is not smoking. Vapor has been conclusively proven not to be smoke, and science has eliminated any possibility of gnomes or gremlins turning vapor into smoke inside your mouth, and then turning it back into vapor when you exhale.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that users of vapor are not users of smoke. Cessation of smoking seems to be a good idea, even if one uses a substitute, so long as the substitute is less harmful.
But the market has substitutes. You can pop pills (some which have dangerous side-effects), you can chew gum, you can wear a dermal delivery system also known as a patch, there are non-vaporizing inhalers. The black market may have substitutes as well.
You could switch to smokeless tobacco, which appears to have lower health risks than smoking. You could even seek out a pasteurized form, like Snus, which appear to be safe or at least dramatically safer.
The market has counseling. You can talk through your cravings until you’re so exhausted you couldn’t smoke if you wanted to. You could go live on a desert island surrounded by frozen turkeys.
There are books, which are basically static counseling.
These alternatives have not proven effective enough for most people. They lack control, the key feature that is utterly vital and renowned in psychology. (Or at least the perception of control.)
That is the biggest reason why these products are effective. The user can always take another draw from it if their cravings or stress levels require it. That extra draw doesn’t need to significantly alter their nicotine levels, but only give them the feeling that they have immediately improved their state. That they are in control.
Failure to cease smoking is a failure to maintain control. It is accepting that one does not have enough willpower to control not engaging in the smoking behavior. But with the other quit methods, one has not replaced the control with anything. You cannot take more pills than the dosage states, nor can you put on more patches or chew more gum. You can only afford so much counseling, and while you can clutch the books mighty tight in your hands, they will not give you control.
The fact that some of these devices may mimic cigarettes in appearance, have pressure switches to release vapor on demand, paint and lights to make them look, and can be flavored like cigarettes does not make these aspects more important. It is true, some people want the feeling of smoking, or the holding in their hand, or the visible vapor giving the appearance.
But it is not unlike hunger: if you were stranded, and the only food did not look like food, smell like food, taste like food, did not chew like food, but did sate like food, you would eat it and call it food.
Now for some people this might not suffice, at least initially. They want the mimicry. So they can have it.
The other element of control here is the level of nicotine in the juice, commonly referred as the number of milligrams (mg) per milliliter (ml). Common amounts are below 3.6% (36mg/ml) at the high end down to 0% (also called zero nicotine). Because the concentration is entirely adjustable when purchasing or mixing e-liquid, the users are not stuck with whatever arbitrary steps the makers of patches and gums decide. One can even use a different strength of juice at different times, to suit their needs.
The Government, Society, and Tobacco: History
There is a long history of attempts to regulate tobacco, to tax it. For a long time the social attitude was very mellow toward tobacco. It has grown harsher in recent decades, especially as people had friends and family die to smoking-related illnesses and saw the effects of smoking take their toll on loved ones. This is no different than with alcohol, where organizations such as M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) grew out of the loss of children to automobile accidents where alcohol contributed to the tragic loss of life.
Now we are at a point where smokers look like members of P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness And Normalcy), ready to strap on goat-leggings and sacrifice virgins with the best of them. They are seen approaching the level of drunk drivers.
Society has taken its usual attitude of not trying to deal with the problem directly as adults (there has yet to be any attempt to make drinking to excess safe for the car-based transport system). It has passed law after law to ban smoking everywhere it can (including, I understand, a new law banning fetal smoking in utero). It has raised taxes regularly, such that it now depends on these revenues to provide vital services. Billions of dollars per year in sweat get funneled from the brows of low-income smokers into government coffers. Ostensibly this is to reduce smoking rates through the only means known in a primitive: starving them out. A good, old-fashioned siege. Society as boa constrictor.
There has been no real attempt to divert these revenues toward research on alternatives to smoking, or reducing harm. Just like we never spend any decent share of taxes on carbon pollution for clean energy research. But markets do their thing, and occasionally one produces an alternative anyway.
Now that vaporizing nicotine liquids seems like a viable, safer alternative to smoking, how should the governments, society, and markets react? So far it has been hostility.
Governments have banned, or sought to ban these new products. Existing firms including the tobacco companies and pharmaceutical industry have sought to bend regulation in their favors, with the former wanting the gift of the electronic cigarette industry and barriers to others competing with them, the latter seeking bans and to undermine the utility of the alternative.
Many seemingly benevolent non-profits have been opposed as well. Whether this is due to their funding sources, ignorance, or T-totalist attitudes toward nicotine does not matter. What matters is the harm they do to their own charities through their prohibitionist stance toward a serious health issue.
The governments are burning similar bridges, by flying the flag of excess caution on this one specific issue while being happy to ride into the dark on a million others. Europe is looking at a ban of anything over 4mg/ml (0.4% nicotine by volume). Many states have or will lump vaporizers in their indoor smoking/public smoking bans. The FDA has its eye on banning the sale of flavors under the notion that flavors appeal to children.
There are also efforts to ban internet sales, which undermines market forces.
About the only regulation that seems entirely appropriate is a ban on sales to minors.
At a recent California Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for a bill to ban the use of nicotine vapor indoors, a professor from the University of California testified that a study found nine of 11 “Volatile Organic Compounds” in greater concentrations in electronic cigarettes than in traditional cigarettes. The problem was that these compounds were metals found in the electronic components of the device, meaning their presence was entirely precluded from the traditional cigarettes. That fact was not admitted during the testimony.
At just about every turn, it seems like society is hell-bent on keeping the status quo with regards to tobacco smoking. They want the tax revenue. They want the ineffective cessation methods to keep bringing in a constant stream of revenue from recidivists. They want the feeling of moral superiority that comes with indoor bans, while they chug their caffeine-laced beverages.
The establishment’s studies have been poorly conducted, using few products which may or may not be representative of the gamut of available products. They have often failed to replicate real-world usage, and made assumptions that are unfounded.
But worse than all these is the use of the broad brush, that even if you accept the conclusions of these studies you should never take it to mean that the product cannot be improved upon and the deficiencies remedied.
The electronic cigarette market, on the other hand, is both literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. While most of the components are made in China, and thus not contributing as much to the domestic economies in Europe and North America, there are a lot of juice makers, and brick-and-mortar stores opening which do help local economies.
There is a large hobbyist community growing around electronic cigarettes. The hobbyists have led the way in the creation of new products that are subsequently manufactured at high-end in Europe and the USA, and replicated at lower cost from China.
There are quality control issues with some of the Chinese-made components, but by-and-large the Chinese factories have been receptive to criticism and have taken seriously concerns that were voiced with regard to both materials and manufacturing methods. This is because the stores want to move the product, which means they need mind-share from the users of these devices, who want safe, quality goods.
Compare that to most other products you might own, where the market is homogenized and overregulated. Most markets are so developed that they eschew any sort of innovation, particularly any sort of small-batch runs of parts. When was the last time you looked to buy a garage-built vacuum cleaner or television?
But the market is working so far for electronic cigarettes. The majority of governments have not yet enacted bans or taxes. And until they do, one would expect only good things to continue from vapor products.
Most of the community does want more valid scientific study and quality control for these products. They don’t want them overregulated, but they don’t want to have to resort to home test kits and guess work for knowing best practices and best outcomes. They want quality products, but they don’t want to be forced to conform to some large corporation’s vision of how they should receive their vapor (eg, not everyone wants to use a model that mimics a cigarette).
The best things that the government could do:
- Give the people exact numbers on things like how much nicotine they are ingesting, what temperatures are safe/how not to exceed safe temperatures (this relates mostly to the fact that one of the principal components of liquid, Vegetable Glycerin, can oxidize into Acrolein, a carcinogen, at high enough temperatures; it’s currently a low-level risk and worry of users that some small amount may be produced while using a vaporizer, but in amounts far lower than existing safe limits as promulgated by the government and industries that work with these substances).
- Issue minimal quality-control standards, where not already covered by existing regulations. If these are made binding, they should be limited to production volumes, and not for small shops. For small shops, the requirement should be more along the lines of informing purchasers that they are exempt from the quality control, with the burden being on the small shops to provide whatever information their customers want about quality control to satisfy their concerns. As long as the public can easily see what regulations apply to the large firms, and compare the claims of small makers with the regulations, they can decide if the quality is present or absent.
- Stay out of the way: only minimal interference in the market, minimal tax, and not trying to poison this market.
Society has a real opportunity to move away from tobacco smoke while stopping absurd punishment of people who, absent smoke, are likely doing no more damage to themselves than drinking caffeine does.
These years will mark a critical period in our history, where we decide whether or not to reform our society or play by the old rules that will surely doom us in time. If society and the government decide to put the kibosh on electronic cigarettes, it will mark as dark of a day for mankind as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan in World War Two, and will easily kill more people than those bombs did.
There is much animosity against regular smokers. They are seen as a stain upon our world, despite their villainousness being far less than that of many other industries and behaviors including automobiles, electric power from fossil fuels, the war industry, the prison industry, etc. This is mainly because they are perceived as individuals making deleterious choices in the face of resounding evidence, where other maladaptive practices are seen as institutional and the facts don’t seem as clear.
Some smokers (and even some non-smokers) feel that users of vaporizers are cowards for not facing the harm of real cigarettes. Others feel that electronic cigarette users are happy to join in vilification of smokers in the hopes of pacifying the masses and differentiating themselves. I feel the former attitude has deeper roots in the overall cultural baggage, while the latter are much more valid concerns.
Society ought to be as inclusive and permissive as it may be without harming itself. Indoor smoking bans make sense, where indoor bans on vaporizers do not meet the burden of proof anymore than indoor bans on cooking, perfume, or coffee would. But smokers are not bad people. Bans that are strictly punitive, or attempts to treat them negatively as part of the bans, are barbarous. They constitute immoral acts and deserve scorn.
Smokers should be invited to reduce their bodily harm by adopting safe alternatives, and society should be encouraging that. Quit or die should not be the call of anyone who wishes to belong to a society.
Feelings of superiority are antiques. I am not better than you if I eat the crust on my bread, and you are not better than me if you can do more repetitions at a heavier weight. Because unless we find ourselves at the edge of life, and have to murder each other just to see daylight, we are better off when we are all better.
It’s surprising to see the ability of markets when they are left alone to develop. In some ways that could be enhanced, both by changes to existing law and by changes to existing markets. I don’t feel we are at that place as a species, where we seek to enhance natural systems rather than enforce artificial models upon them. But we may be soon.
It’s joyful to see the communities of former smokers work to help one another in their new endeavors of using vaporized nicotine. These are people who have been vilified by society, now given the opportunity to shake off those stigmas and brands. It’s like the scene in the movies where the Bad News Bears or whoever the losers are overcome and defeat the snobs. But it’s a tiny glimpse of the sort of transformation that can and should sweep our entire planet.
If you know smokers, you should ask them about electronic cigarettes. Have they tried them? Do they know the variety of products that exists, or have they only seen the dime-store versions? Knowledge is a powerful thing, and making sure it spreads is essential to society.