The burning debate continues about the safety of electronic cigarettes, popularly called e-cigarettes. The big question is: are they a safer substitute to real cigarettes?

The major difference between the two types is pretty straightforward. A conventional cigarette burns tobacco whereas the e-cigarette uses a battery-propelled heat to vaporise odourless propylene glycol or varying amounts of nicotine contained in a cartridge. The vapour is then inhaled by a user, without involving any real smoke.

Mired in controversies

Invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik in 2003, e-cigarettes were introduced to the market a couple of years later, sparking one controversy after another. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had threatened to ban their sale and almost half-a-dozen anti-smoking groups have vehemently opposed them. The main concern being its safety and the way it’s being marketed towards children and teenagers.

Lobbyists representing tobacco companies have urged the FDA to take serious action against e-cigarettes manufacturers and ban their sale, fearing a threat to their profits.

Nicotine in a liquid form can be dangerous, especially if it comes in contact with the skin. And there are some uncertainties about the long term use of propylene glycol too.

Since their inception into the global market, regulators have urged the e-cigarette manufacturers to re-evaluate their safety measures. They fear that not much research has been undertaken to know what chemicals or toxins are generated in the vapours from e-cigarettes.

Scientists have expressed their doubts about lack of health warnings on the package and environmentalists are concerned that not enough precaution is being taken to dispose of e-cigarettes and its accessories, which could pose an environmental risk of nicotine contamination.

Marketing Concerns

It’s the marketing of e-cigarettes that has faced a lot of heat. Experts have raised serious concerns that could increase nicotine addiction amongst younger generation and could potentially lure kids to try tobacco-related products.

Anti-tobacco aficionados argue that e-cigarettes may prompt adolescents to give it a try for the first time, as they come in luring flavours such almond, cherry, chocolate and fruit. The fact that they are shaped and look like a normal cigarette, promotes the social appeal of smoking. As they can be purchased online, it is deemed to be misused by the minors.

Banned in several countries

In 2010 the Tobacco Regulation raised several warnings about e-cigarettes. Countries such as Canada, Brazil, Thailand, Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia have banned e-cigarettes.

However, in United Kingdom the sale and use of e-cigarettes is legal.

FDA’s perspective

Although FDA has not fully assessed e-cigarettes for safety or its usefulness, but having conducted laboratory studies of certain samples, it has found that quality control processes used to manufacture are inadequate. The FDA has also found irregularities in e-cigarette cartridges that confuse the user with regard to the amount of nicotine contained in it.

However, at end of 2010 FDA formally regulated e-cigarettes on the premise that they are marketed as both a drug and a drug-delivery device.

A professor from Boston University identified the contents in e-cigarette liquid and vapours and found that the carcinogen levels in e-cigarettes are up to 1000 times lower than in conventional cigarettes.

Top e-cigarette brands have started using warning labels as their products do contain nicotine.

Acts as a weaning device

E-cigarette manufacturers have suggested that many regular smokers have found ways of reducing or quitting their smoking habit after trying e-cigarettes. And the varying levels of nicotine acts a weaning device too. It is claimed to be clearly healthier when compared to the number of chemicals present in tobacco smoke.

University of East London carried out a research and concluded that e-cigarettes can be useful in reducing nicotine-related withdrawal symptoms temporarily.

Although we still are not completely sure about the safety of e-cigarettes but we certainly know the harmful effects of regular smoking.