Where Will E-Cigarettes Take Us?


You don’t have to look far to find cautionary tales when it comes to new technology.

We have everything from the automobile (fast transportation but sometimes deadly) to cell phones (quick communication but also sometimes deadly – and addictive).

We seem to be quicker at inventing things than we are at figuring out how to best use and regulate those things.

And that’s where we are now with e-cigarettes. We have a new technology that’s gaining in popularity with regulations lagging – and with the final usage pattern undetermined.

Re-examining the technology

In concept, the e-cigarette couldn’t be simpler. A cartridge is filled with a solution that evaporates at less than the combustion temperature – generally a mix of glycols and glycerin. This solution is wicked into an area with a heating element (coil) that raises the temperature and vaporizes the “juice.” The “e” in e-cigarettes comes from the battery-driven electrical heating element.

Originally designed as a type of nicotine replacement therapy, e-cigarettes are now being sold as a convenient replacement for traditional smoking with less toxins and very little secondhand smoke. There are fewer toxins generated because the solution has only the carrier liquid and nicotine. The normal combustion products from burning tobacco are avoided.

So far, so good. But the e-cigarette is finding use not just among those who wish to stop smoking but also as a way to smoke in circumstances where normal puffing away would be prohibited. Without any fire, there’s no smoke – technically, someone using an e-cigarette isn’t smoking at all. This means nicotine addicts can “imbibe” in a building, an elevator, a restaurant or even a movie theater.

Unintended consequences

The long struggle to combat tobacco addiction is paying off. Currently, about one in five Americans smokes cigarettes, and this represents a falling off of about half since the 1960s (depending on demographic). Anti-smoking advocates can rightly point to this decrease as progress in the fight against nicotine addiction.

But now, the pendulum can swing the other way. With e-cigarettes, it may even be possible to recruit new smokers who can be hooked without the counterclaim of toxins and without the gut reaction so many have to traditional smoking.

By promoting e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to smoking, cigarette companies (the major purchaser of tobacco) can create a new market and use the same techniques they used before. By branding different types of cartridges and solutions, tobacco manufacturers now have a chance to addict a whole new generation to nicotine.

Are they? There are indications that major tobacco is doing just that. Reports in Advertising Age are that tobacco companies are dumping money into new ad campaigns to promote e-cigarettes, which don’t have the same restrictions on ads that traditional cigarettes do. They are off and running, trying to brand their version of e-cigarettes, painting them as sophisticated and high-tech.

More consequences

On an entirely different front, e-cigarettes are being used as handy vaporizers for those using medical marijuana. An extract of cannabis replaces the nicotine in the same solution and bingo! – a readily available, portable unit that can contain more than 100 “hits.” And if that wasn’t enough, the vaporizers (or “vapes”) don’t produce the heady, unmistakable smell that smoking a joint does. Users can literally take a toke in public with no one the wiser.

From a technology standpoint, an e-cigarette doesn’t care what you put in it – as long as the drug substance can be vaporized at temperatures the unit can reach. Modifications are as simple as refilling the small cartridge and making sure a custom solution will flow through the wick.

No one can predict with certainty where e-cigarettes will end up, even a few years from now. What we can say with confidence is that new technologies tend to settle in and, over time, become the norm. Perhaps in a decade or so, the next generation will wonder how we ever got by being addicted to leaves in a paper tube, thinking such things extraordinarily primitive, while they remain just as addicted but more stylishly so.

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