By Kristin Harper
HEY ARE EVERYWHERE, FROM GAS STATIONS TO DRUG STORES TO BODEGAS TO VAPE SHOPS, and they come in a wide range of flavors: menthol, scotch, vanilla, and even cappuccino. Also, unlike regular cigarettes, people under the age of 18 are legally allowed to purchase e-ciga- rettes in many states. This helps explain why e-cigarette use by teens tripled between 2013 and 2014; in a recent survey, 17% of high school seniors reported using an e-cigarette in the previous month. E-cigarettes are becoming more popular than regular cigarettes among high school students. Some teens say that vaping, or inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an e-cigarette, helps them relax; some like the flavors; some think they are a safe alternative to regular cigarettes; and others like performing smoke tricks for friends. But are e-cigarettes really safer than regular cigarettes—and, if so, what is the chemical basis for the difference between the two?
E-cigarettes versus regular cigarettes
The biggest difference between e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes is that e-cigarettes don’t burn.
Instead, a battery-operated cartridge inside an e-cigarette converts liquid nicotine into a vapor. This is an
important distinction because the greatest danger associated with tobacco is the smoke, which contains
a toxic mix of more than 7,000 chemicals, including more than 70 substances that can cause cancer.
Some of the toxic components of cigarette smoke include carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and
formaldehyde (dangerous gases); benzene (a component of gasoline); and polyaromatic hydrocarbons
and tobacco-specific nitrosamines (compounds that may cause mutations in our DNA). The absence of
this harmful smoke does not mean that e-cigarettes are totally safe, though. They still contain nicotine, the
compound that makes cigarettes addictive.
Nicotine is derived from the roots of plants in the nightshade family, which includes tobacco plants, and
accumulates in their leaves. These plants use nicotine to keep away herbivores, the animals that eat them.
At some point during human history, people discovered that the small doses of nicotine in tobacco act as
a stimulant, making people who smoke it feel more alert. Tobacco was smoked in the Americas long before
Christopher Columbus arrived, and European settlers of the New World introduced the practice of tobacco
smoking to Europe, from which it spread across the Old World.
Tobacco plants hanging to dry
ANTHON Y FERNANDEZ; SHUT TERS TOCK; DOLLARPHO TOCLUB
ANTHON Y FERNANDEZ; ADAP TED FROM H TTP://SCIENCE. HO WS TUFFWORKS.COM/NICOTINE3.HTM
16 ChemMatters | FEBRUARY/MARCH 2016