Schrödinger's Cigarette: Is Electronic Safer?

Tobacco companies want to provide smokers with the "reduced-risk" products they desire. But until there's been more time to do research, using e-cigarettes can't be considered a safe choice.
Sodanie Chea/flickr

E-cigarettes, with their ads featuring sexy people puffing away on futuristic tubes tipped with blue light, seem distinctly modern. But the idea actually dates back to 1963, when a two-pack-a day smoker named Herbert A. Gilbert patented a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette” that delivered flavored steam without combustion. Unfortunately, the smoke-hazy Mad Men world of the 1960’s wasn’t ready for Gilbert’s idea, and it received little attention. It took until 2003 for the e-cigarette to find a foothold in the public consciousness, when a Chinese pharmacist named Hon Lik, whose father had died of lung cancer, developed a device to vaporize liquid nicotine, which became the e-cigarette we know today.

It was the right idea at the right time. By the time e-cigarettes were introduced to the U.S. market in 2007, smoking rates were less than half what they were in Gilbert’s time, and the new product presented a threat to an industry that was slipping thanks in part to widespread knowledge of the public health risks of its product. While traditional cigarette sales have been declining for decades, e-cigs, though still a relatively small portion of the market, are on the rise. In 2012, a Wells Fargo survey predicted that the e-cigarette industry, then valued at about $300 million in revenue, would swell to $1 billion within the next few years.

Much of this has to do with a public perception that e-cigs are better for you. A survey by the Partnership at Drugfree.org found that 80 percent of people who smoke e-cigarettes thought they were less harmful than traditional cigarettes. And as of 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, one in five adult smokers had tried an e-cigarette. But the Food and Drug Administration has just begun the process to regulate e-cigarettes, and states on its website that there is not yet enough research to know their potential risks.

“To say that it’s less harmful is like saying it’s better to jump out of the 40th floor than the 100th floor of a building,” says Stacey Anderson, an assistant professor of social and behavioral science specializing in tobacco marketing at the University of California, San Francisco.

Anderson says that tobacco companies have been looking for a product to keep them on top and combat declining cigarette sales for decades. After some lukewarm forays into chewable tobacco, “[tobacco companies would have us believe that] e-cigarettes are looking very close to being the Holy Grail,” she says. It’s not just the nicotine, see, that makes smokers want to smoke—it’s the ritual. The lighting, the puffing, the flicking of the ash. And e-cigarettes are the closest approximation yet.

And so, since 2012, Big Tobacco has begun snapping up e-cigarette startups. All of the world’s five largest tobacco companies have by now invested in e-cigarettes in some way, making their own products, or acquiring other e-cig companies. In one such instance, Altria Group, Inc., maker of Marlboros, purchased Green Smoke in February. David Sylvia, a spokesperson for Altria, explained that the capabilities of Green Smoke as a technology company were important to add to the traditional tobacco company, which has been selling essentially the same cigarette for decades.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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