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Cyber-Smoke: The Emergence of the E-Cigarette as an Alternative

This week's cover story addresses the skyrocketing price of cigarettes in New York and some of the ways people are coping. The hideous and disturbing anti-smoking commercials and billboards, together with the indoor smoking ban has sent smokers running for a variety of smoking alternatives, both to side-step legislation and make somewhat healthier choices.

Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention, and once again technology now offers options that were unthinkable as recently as a decade ago. Mechatronics, the combination of mechanical, electronic and software engineering has produced an advanced hybrid system: the electronic cigarette, aka the e-cig. An international subculture has emerged around e-cigs, though patents are still pending worldwide for the products, are produced and distributed primarily from China. Sidestepping cigarettes by pursuing international loopholes through the Internet, most e-cigs are bought online, breeding wealth of online forums where users compare products and share tips on cleaning, tricks and troubleshooting.

E-cigs take the form of a metallic tiny rod, generally a little longer than a real cigarette. The mouthpiece contains a replaceable cartridge filled with a liquid, referred to as e-liquid, composed mainly of nicotine and propylene glycol. The nicotine gives the smoker the same high as a regular cigarette without the damage from tar and other harmful chemicals, and the propylene glycol allows the smoke exhaled to closely resemble real cigarette smoke. Inhaling through the device allows a sensor to detect the airflow. A microprocessor, or a single integrated circuit, activates an atomizer (a tiny vaporizer) which injects small drops of the nicotine liquid into the air and vaporizes the nicotine. Real smoking is better simulated thanks to a light-emitting diode (LED) that glows orange while the smoker inhales.

E-cigs use a rechargeable battery as a power source, and battery life varies between devices. The Kissbox Classic line from Janty offers an additional USB cable to charge the device directly from an electricity network or via a computer for constant power supply. Hon Like of Ruyan, the leading company, and others like Janty, Gamucci, Crown 7, and Njoy offer different flavor cartridges comparable to hookah tobacco flavors, and some offer nicotine-free cartridges.

E-cigarettes have been found after a series of toxicological tests to be less harmful than regular cigarettes, but by no means harmless. Smokers will remain vulnerable to the circulatory diseases associated with nicotine, though the lack of carcinogens and toxicants will reduce the chances of lung and heart disease.

There are also some issues of quality control. The most recent and most popular e-cig is the DSE-103 has been developed to combat common problems of finding nicotine liquid in the mouth, foul tastes, or unrealistic design. Some buyers purchase personal fridges for nicotine liquid to preserve freshness. Atomizers are complicated to clean, and require constant care, and some smokers still complain that they are not yet realistic enough. Some go as far as putting pipe tobacco in vaporizers, adjusting the heat to suit tobacco as opposed to nicotine liquid, which burns at a much higher temperature.

The cash roll for the companies lies in the cartridges and accessories, but the gadgets themselves still remain restrictively expensive. The Kissbox Classic starter kit can be between $70 – $100, the Njoy Starter Kit is $142.70, and the Ruyan starter kit starts at $170. Battery charger range from $12-$80 as they vary greatly in quality, and packs of five cartridges are on average about $75. How does this side-step anything? Does it save anyone enough money to justify switching from regular cigarettes? The answer depends largely on the individual smoker's highest priorities. Some feel that the social acceptability of a healthier cigarette that can be smoked inside is worth the cost, and others enjoy the near steam-punk aspect of smoking a sleek, essentially computerized cigarette, catapulting them into a futuristic idea of chic – a romanticism that some argue is lost from regular cigarettes due to the health risks and social stigma.

The e-cig can be smoked inside, technically, as it is not a tobacco cigarette and the emitted smoke is harmless and odorless. However, its ambiguous status forces users to have to maneuver carefully. A handful of EU nations have stipulations about their legality, Austria deeming it a medical device, the UK allowing them inside and sold at a celebrity nightclub, Chinawhite, and the Netherlands allowing their use but forbidding advertising until the EU makes a legal stand. They have been accepted in the US, several e-cig smokers reporting that after explaining to their bosses and HR, they have enjoyed smoking at their desks at work. All e-cigs seem to be imported, but the US seems not to have taken a legal stand as yet.

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