E-Cigarettes: Are They Safer Than Regular Cigarettes?

We’re constantly bombarded with statistics about how smoking is bad for our health. But there’s a similar product on the scene that has been lauded as a safer, cleaner way to get the smoking buzz without the serious health consequences: electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). Only about 4.9 percent of college students in a Wake Forest School of Medicine study reported ever vaping (the term for smoking an e-cigarette), but we do know that 24.8 percent of college students smoke, and the e-cigarette may increase in popularity among smoking and nonsmoking college students alike. But are e-cigarettes really safer than regular cigarettes? We talked to Erika Sward, Associate Vice President of Advocacy for the American Lung Association, to get the lowdown on vaping.

What are e-cigarettes?

E-cigarettes are a lot like their traditional counterparts—just electronic. Through a device that vaporizes liquid (usually containing nicotine, the same chemical in normal cigarettes—which is the chemical that gives you the buzz), a person can inhale the vapor and get a similar sensation to tobacco smoking. There are e-cigarettes available without nicotine, which means they will give you the look of smoking but won’t give you any side effects. Most e-cigarettes do contain nicotine, however, so it is important to check to packaging to know exactly what you’re inhaling.

 “There are about 250 different brands of e-cigarettes – they’re not all the same,” Sward says. “One may have one level of nicotine in them and another product may be completely different.”

E-cigarettes usually look nearly identical to regular cigarettes, except that they’re reusable and made of plastic. You can purchase e-cigarettes online or drugstores next to traditional cigarettes. You can buy disposable ones (not rechargeable) or rechargeable ones that you can recharge as if it were a phone. E-cigarettes also often come in flavors such as mint, vanilla, cherry or a classic tobacco taste, which may make them even more appealing to college students.

Many people turn to e-cigarettes because they are marketed as a safer way to get the smoking buzz without using tobacco. Also, e-cigarettes don’t smell like tobacco, so they can be used indoors in some states where there are smoking bans.

This was a huge bonus to Julie, a student at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “E-cigarettes were different because it's vapor instead of smoke, which meant I didn't smell like cigarette smoke and I didn't get smoker's breath after a e-cig,” she says.

For Heather, a student at University of Oregon, e-cigarettes just felt safer. “The main attraction is that the smoke smell doesn't stick to your clothing or linger in the air,” she says. “It also feels a little cleaner to inhale. The ones [I tried] also lasted a long time—almost two weeks!”

Are they actually safe?

Despite the perception that e-cigs are a safer and cleaner way to smoke, scientists unfortunately don’t know about their long-term effects yet. “So much is unknown about e-cigarettes and their potential health consequences,” Sward says.

But here’s the crux: most brands do contain nicotine, which is the harmful carcinogen in regular cigarettes that can cause cancer and lung damage. Nicotine is also highly addictive, Sward says. The best way to check if a particular brand of e-cigarette contains nicotine is to carefully read the packaging.

Although there is a shortage of knowledge on the long-term consequences of e-cigarettes, Sward points to a few studies that have been conducted that suggest that they are dangerous and should not be considered a safe version of smoking. “What research we do have comes from the FDA, which found carcinogens and toxic chemicals in [e-cigarettes],” she says. “We’ve seen initial studies showing that lung function may be affected. We’ve seen initial studies that show carcinogens coming from the secondhand smoke. The people around them may not be safe as well.”

A further cause for concern is the lack of regulation. “They’re 100 percent unregulated,” Sward says. That means that there is no governmental oversight when it comes to e-cigarette production. For something to be considered safe, the Food and Drug Administration typically stamps its approval. This is not the case with e-cigarettes, says Sward.

“People shouldn’t inhale things into their lungs that haven’t been found to be safe. Anytime someone inhales an e-cigarette, they’re taking a chance,” Sward says. “Most contain nicotine, and nicotine is addictive. Smoking an e-cigarette may lead to addiction.”

What does e-cigarette addiction look like?

Sward notes that doctors determine addiction usually based on how quickly you need a cigarette when you wake up and how often you smoke. If you think you are becoming addicted to vaping (or any other substance), talk to someone at your student health center.

The bottom line? These products CAN be addictive, and not enough research has been conducted to determine their safety. In cases like these, Sward says, it is best to stay far away rather than risk your health.


Want to know more about collegiettes’ drug and alcohol use? Check out Her Campus’s Ultimate College Life Survey.