E-Cigs’ Inconvenient Truth: It’s Much Safer to Vape
Daniel Walsh was first drawn to electronic cigarettes for the same reason millions of smokers have taken up the devices. “I was a guy who could work 20 hour days and juggle a number of complex projects, but I couldn’t quit,” says Walsh. “It was my greatest deficit.” The quixotic promise that have made e-cigs the subject of endless controversy — that smoking cessation and smoking as recreation can coexist — resonated with Walsh. After successfully making the switch, he was so enamored by the product that he left his job developing artificial intelligence in San Francisco, decamped to Michigan and launched Purebacco, a manufacturer of the flavored, nicotine-laced liquid that are battery-heated into an inhalable vapor inside e-cigs. With over 30 employees, satellite offices in San Francisco and London, and plans to expand into a 40,000-square-foot headquarters, Purebacco’s growth is a microcosm of the industry as a whole, which is estimated to do $3.5 billion in sales this year. “There is so much anecdotal evidence out there supporting the idea that people like me have helped hundreds of thousands of smokers quit,” says Walsh, who is known to colleagues as the High Priest of Vaping, a fitting nickname for an enigmatic scientist with a mane of blond dreadlocks who works long hours in his sleek laboratory. “Yet as an e-cig CEO, I’m not really supposed to say that, since current rules prohibit us from marketing our products as anything but another vice.”
In August, when British health officials released what was billed as a “landmark review” of electronic cigarettes, Walsh savored a moment of vindication. Describing the devices in headline-grabbing language — “around 95 percent safer than smoking” — the study encouraged e-cigs to be labeled as an effective means of helping smokers curb and kick the deadly habit: a nicotine delivery system with the “potential to make a significant contribution to the endgame for tobacco,” as the report boldly stated, that should be embraced as a public health breakthrough rather than shunned as a novel evil undermining the crusade against smoking. “It was what I’ve been preaching for years!” says Walsh. “Maybe we’re seeing a shift where people like me don’t sound so fringe and crazy.”
In England, perhaps. In America, the dominant message regarding e-cigs is that they are a menace. They have been placed under similar restrictions as tobacco products in the U.S., despite the fact that they contain no tobacco, long understood to be the source of the carcinogens that make smoking the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. Campaigns by anti-smoking groups have successfully fostered the perception that the risks of e-cigs are interchangeable from ordinary cigarettes, and the mainstream media has largely followed in step, with much of the reporting on e-cigs focused on the sensational (exploding devices!) and the apocalyptic (worse than tobacco!). What makes this all particularly confounding is that most American public health officials agree with the core claim of the British report: namely, that puffing an e-cig is significantly less harmful than a tobacco cigarette. Maybe not a provocative 95 percent safer — the research remains spotty, open to interpretation, and e-cigs are too new to be the subject of any longitudinal studies — but at the very least free of the most pernicious toxins released when tobacco is burned. So why the reluctance to make this clear, when 480,000 Americans die from smoking each year?
While the e-cig industry was jumpstarted by entrepreneurs like Walsh, big tobacco companies have since waded into the fray — which might be part of the problem. They don’t want to be shut out of a growing business that some predict may eventually overtake their own, but given that cigarette sales still generate a staggering $35 billion in annual profits for the world’s six largest tobacco companies, they remain incentivized to keep smokers drawn to their bedrock product. With electronic offerings like MarkTen — made by Altria, manufacturers of Marlboro — now among the most visible brands, it’s understandable that some view e-cigs as the latest ploy of an industry with a well-documented history of manipulation and subterfuge. Whereas 84 percent of smokers believed e-cigs to be safer than ordinary cigarettes in 2010, by 2013 that figure had dropped to 63 percent. A study last year found that a third of people who had abandoned e-cigs and resumed smoking tobacco did so out of concern for the health effects of vaping.
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