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.
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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.

“This new e-vapor category is five-years-old,” he says. “You have a lot of companies in this space today that have never sold traditional tobacco products. So that shows a massive shift in innovation that is very different than anything we’ve seen in my 15 years here.”

Philip Morris International is taking a different tack, developing several products that are somewhere between an e-cigarette and a conventional one. One, which is currently in clinical trials and will be commercialized later this year, consists of a tobacco stick inserted into a heating mechanism which heats the tobacco just enough to create an inhalable aerosol, without actual combustion.

Tomasso di Giovanni, head of reduced-risk product communications for PMI, says he thinks there’s still a gap between e-cigarettes and the experience smokers get from a traditional cigarette. And that’s the place in which they can innovate, getting asymptotically closer to the ritual smokers seek, while hopefully creating a product that’s less harmful.

“We want to have something that is as close as possible to the sensory experience, the ritual, and the taste but without most of the toxic components generated by smoke,” he says, noting that PMI is still assessing the product’s risk. He emphasizes PMI’s commitment to making sure any “reduced-risk” products they produce are actually less risky.

While public perception is now pretty clear on the fact that smoking is bad for you, e-cigarettes have ushered in a new period of uncertainty. With traditional cigarettes, all that’s left to debate is how big warning labels should be and how much we should tax them. But e-cigarettes offer the possibility that people can have their cigs and smoke them too—that they could keep their health without giving up their vice. But while this belief is out there, we really do not have the evidence to support it yet.

“These things take a few years to start developing a good body of evidence,” Anderson says.

She also notes that the perceived safety of e-cigarettes could lead to extra unintended public health risks, especially for underage smokers who, she says “would have no interest in smoking traditional cigarettes,” but may be drawn to the fruity flavors and colorful packaging of some of the devices.

According to Anderson, this period of innovation has also offered companies a way to get their products back into places they’ve been banned from for years. E-cigs are allowed in many public spaces where smoking is otherwise forbidden, and Anderson says marketing is more ubiquitous, too.

“We’re seeing cigarette advertisements on the television and hearing them on the radio for the first time since 1971 and it’s just because they’re calling them e-cigarettes and they’re heated by a battery instead of by a flame,” she says.

Whether that’s enough to make them actually safer, we don’t know. But it’s clear at least that smokers are looking for healthier alternatives, and tobacco companies are looking for ways to provide them. E-cigarettes might really be that Holy Grail, but their healthy image might also fade when we get close enough to see them clearly.

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

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