E-cigarettes not just blowing smoke

By Katy Nielsen

They light up without lighters and people exhale what looks like smoke, but these cigarettes are tobacco-free and the smoke released is water vapor.

Electronic cigarettes have received a lot of media attention lately, but few stores in Chicago sell the product, among them Mr. Smoke, 2250 N. Lincoln Ave., and 21st Century Smoking, 2516 N. Lincoln Ave. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve the product.

According to a study titled “Smoking Mind over Smoking Matter,” published by American Friends of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology and republished by Science Daily in July 2010, cigarette cravings can arise from the psychosocial habit of smoking, not a nicotine addiction. The study suggests the activity, or action of smoking, is the real addiction.

“The results were not really surprising for me,” said Reuven Dar, associate professor at Tel Aviv University, who conducted the study. “They may be surprising to people who believe smoking is equivalent to nicotine addiction and craving to smoke is caused by nicotine deprivation.”

The study followed flight attendants who get cigarette cravings while working on international flights. Dar found the desire to smoke is determined more by environmental cues, such as habits and expectations, than by nicotine deprivation. Based on this research, smoking is more of an oral fixation than a chemical addiction.

“This has implications to what [smokers] should emphasize in trying to change the habit,” Dar said. “For example, [smokers should find] alternative ways of managing negative feelings and resisting cravings triggered by social and environmental cues instead of relying on nicotine patches or medications.”

E-cigarettes are a replacement for cigarettes; they change the habit but do not eliminate it. So far, there is no evidence vapor harms bystanders or users.

Dar said the key is to understand smoking as a habit not an addiction. Therefore, smoking cessation approaches should emphasize behavioral aspects of the habit and not focus on the biological component.

E-cigarettes are marketed as a healthier alternative for smokers. However, the FDA has not approved e-cigarettes because they contain nicotine, which it says is an addictive chemical.

“It’s a lot cheaper than smoking cigarettes and as far as the smoking part of it, it simulates it pretty well,” said Sara Wilson, film and video major at Columbia, who bought an e-cigarette to help quit smoking. “The only thing you don’t get is that burn when you first draw it into your lungs because it’s only water vapor.”

For someone smoking four packs of traditional cigarettes a week, at $9 per pack, annual savings are approximately $1,480, according to 21st Century Smoking’s website.

E-cigarettes contain nicotine but no tobacco. They range in price from $100 to $150 and consist of a battery, an atomizer and a cartridge that stores liquid nicotine.

The atomizer heats the cartridge and produces an inhaled vapor. Each cartridge lasts approximately as long as one pack of cigarettes and cartridges come in a variety of flavors including vanilla, coffee, tobacco and menthol. Cartridges come in a range of nicotine strengths from strong to nicotine-free. But for Wilson, there are some downsides.

“It’s not as easy as running down to the gas station to get another pack of cigarettes,” she said. Another issue for Wilson is the physical weight of the device, which separates it from cigarettes.

“There’s like 300 different models, some are lighter than the others; the heavier the battery, the longer it lasts,” said Robert Hough, sales associate at 21st Century Smoking, which has 18 locations across the U.S.

“It’s better than smoking cigarettes in every way,” said Amit Ahlowalia, owner of Mr. Smoke. “It’s a vapor, not a smoke. Depending on the kind of product you have, you can get a lot of vapor; it looks just like smoke out of a cigarette.”

For people quitting smoking, the e-cigarette offers a similar experience and functions as a cigarette replacement.  According to Dar’s study, the activity is more important than the nicotine, which means e-cigarettes might be the thing smokers looking to quit tobacco need.

“About half of the people quit on the spot when they try it,” Ahlowalia said. “I’ve seen people who smoke two or three packs a day switch over to these right in front of me.”

Wilson said she continues to smoke cigarettes, so the e-cigarette may not help everyone quit smoking.

“I’m not going to lie, it doesn’t satisfy your craving quite like a regular cigarette does,” Wilson said. “I do use it, but not as often as I smoke cigarettes.”