Last week, I noticed two teenagers loitering outside an IKEA in New Haven, Connecticut, smoking. The only difference between now and what I might have seen five years ago was that the cigarettes were electronic.
Seemingly overnight, smoking e-cigarettes has become popular. This growth has generated an active policy debate on regulation. Those who would like to ban e-cigarettes say that we don’t have enough information on their risks, and that the availability of this technology will compel more people to smoke, creating adverse public health effects. Those who champion e-cigarettes say that their risks are likely to be a lot smaller than the risks of traditional cigarettes; if this is true, then it may be good policy to accept some total increase in smoking in exchange for safer products.
Making policy here requires understanding more about everything having to do with e-cigarettes: the benefits, the health risks and the impact on smoking overall. The problem is that the research on e-cigarettes so far is mixed, and we may not know enough yet to make any policy decisions.
E-cigarettes, which are battery-operated devices, are loaded with a liquid cartridge containing a synthetic substance called propylene glycol, nicotine (usually) and flavorings (sometimes). The idea is to deliver nicotine in a way that approximates the experience of smoking (something a substitute like nicotine gum does not) but without the tar and many carcinogens found in traditional cigarettes.