How E-Cigarette Alarmists Endanger Smokers' Lives, or Why Eli Lake Should Not Switch Back to Marlboros


Daily Beast national security correspondent Eli Lake gave up cigarettes in 2008, after years of suffering from smoking-related respiratory ailments, when his doctor warned him that he was heading for "a debilitating stroke." For two years Lake struggled against the urge to start smoking again, until he discovered that electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine in a propylene glycol vapor, were a much closer substitute for the habit than nicotine gum yet posed none of the health risks associated with inhaling combustion products. A harm reduction success story, right? Lake doesn't seem to think so. Even though the health risks posed by e-cigarettes are dramatically lower than the health risks posed by the conventional variety, he worries in a recent column, they still may be greater than zero:

After years of telling myself I'd found the perfect loophole, I thought it might be wise to check my facts. The consensus medical research today is that while electronic cigarettes are healthier than tobacco cigarettes, and a good way to end dependency on tobacco, they are not without health risks. Besides the nicotine, the other active ingredient in my cigarettes is propylene glycol, a substance the FDA classifies as GRAS, or "generally recognized as safe." But there's a catch. Most research about propylene glycol is about its effect when it's ingested as an additive in food. Less is known about the effects of inhaling it as a vapor—dozens and dozens of times a day.

"The safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied," says the FDA on its website, and consumers "have no way of knowing…how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use."…

Dr. Lowell Dale, the medical director of the Mayo Clinic's Tobacco Quitline, [told me] propylene glycol as a liquid…is "similar to antifreeze."

"I think the potential is that they are harmful," Dale says. "I think there is less nicotine in those products, and they are not combustible, so you are not getting all the particulate matter you get from cigarettes." But, he adds, "we are just being very cautious about the long-term consequences of its use. It comes out of China. It's unregulated. There is a lot of evidence the products vary from cartridge to cartridge."

Wonderful. Here I was thinking I was cheating death when I was more likely inhaling Chinese-made antifreeze.

Propylene glycol, which is not an "active ingredient" in e-cigarettes but a carrier in which the nicotine and flavoring are dissolved, is known as "nontoxic antifreeze." Guess why. As Lake notes, it is approved by the FDA as a safe food ingredient. It is also used in various FDA-approved medications, including cough syrup and nasal sprays. Calling it "antifreeze" is a scare tactic aimed at clouding the issue. While it's true that there is not much research on the effects of inhaling propylene glycol, a 2012 study found that, unlike tobacco smoke, e-cigarette vapor does not impair lung function in the short term.

E-cigarettes indisputably deliver nicotine without the myriad toxins and carcinogens generated by burning tobacco. Whatever long-term risk propylene glycol vapor may pose is bound to pale in comparison with the well-established hazards of inhaling all of the chemicals you get from cigarettes (which, by the way, include propylene glycol). The bottom line is that Lake is much better off, in terms of the health risks he faces, for having switched from Marlboro Lights to e-cigarettes. Public health officials and anti-smoking activists who obscure that point are endangering smokers' lives by discouraging them from switching to a much safer alternative.

Previous coverage of e-cigarettes here. For more on the "safety and efficacy" of e-cigarettes, see The Rest of the Story, the tobacco policy blog written by Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel.

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  1. What a fool. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, so I will live forever.

      1. As much as I like Queen, I prefer this version

    1. Good thing nobody will live forever 🙂 But I agree with Jacob’s conclusion that the potential long-term risk propylene glycol, which is completely unknown at this time, is far less than continuing to smoke tobacco cigarettes.
      I found this survey…..Cigarettes
      which draws to key conclusions:
      1) 92% of e-cigarette users feel better which certainly shows short term benefits.
      2) 94% have the support of their friends and family which shows that even those around e-smokers appreciate the benefits.

  2. TEAM BAN are animists. They take their hated thing of choice and totemize and fetishize it, giving it, to them, supernatural level powers. Guns just shoot people, and the more “military” they look the scarier they are. E-cigarettes are bad because they look like the totem and do the same job it does (deliver nicotine).

    You know what they should do is make a vaper that just looks nothing like a cigarette. Totally different. I bet the opposition to it would be remarkably less. That’s how dumb and superstitious TEAM BAN is.

    On a side note, my vaper has not caused me to smoke less; I guess I like smoking. Luckily I didn’t get it to smoke less, but to be able to smoke inside during the shitty Seattle winter. So now I still smoke outside and take hits off the vaper inside, so my nicotine consumption has gone up.

    1. You know what they should do is make a vaper that just looks nothing like a cigarette.

      I vape with a Eg0-C extended battery and a Kanger T3 clearomizer. Looks nothing like a cigarette, but it still produces vapor. Which still triggers the fake coughers. And in order for them to not feel like the waste-of-space pieces of shit that they are, they will back any study or piece of misinformation they can get their hands on. Makes no difference what it looks like.

      1. Which still triggers the fake coughers.

        Start at 2:00.

    2. I had the same experience as you with the disposable cigarette look-alikes. A while ago I got one of the pen style ones with liquid at 24mg/ml strength, and stopped smoking without even trying. I did get cravings later on, but trying new flavors mostly took care of that. After a month I stopped getting cravings for cigarettes at all.

      I’d encourage you to give it a try with the real thing, and with liquid that you particularly like (vape shops will usually let you try them) at different strengths. Everyone is different, but it’s not uncommon to hear my same story from others (there was also a survey that found the same as me about variety of flavors being an important factor).

      You can also find WTA (Whole Tobacco Alkaloid) if needed. That’s liquid that has more than just nicotine, but still no tar.

      I don’t usually preach like this, but you’re already half way there; at the very least you’ll still save money with a tank system over the disposables, and there are enough different flavors out there that anyone can find something that’ll excite them.

  3. Also worth noting, propolyne glycol is used in most fog machine fuel. Furthermore, the only study I’m aware of on inhalation of PG is a New Zealand scientist in the 1940’s did a test with it on rats and found that the immune system of those rats that inhaled PG actually was more disease resistant than the control group.

    Having said that, I’m a bit baffled as to why there hasn’t been much clinical study of e-cigs over the last two years. The technology has been around for 3-4 years now and I would think this would be one technology that a grant ought to be easy to get.

    1. They’ve probably had some studies, but they’ve had no time to have long term studies. With something like e-cigs, the long term studies are what would be the most important.

    2. Sudden, it was you who gave me the info on the vaper parts, right?

      Having said that, I’m a bit baffled as to why there hasn’t been much clinical study of e-cigs over the last two years

      See my comment. They are close enough to the totem item that they become tainted and all the bien pensants just automatically hate or at least are uncomfortable with them as well.

      1. It was. I’ve been using them for a couple of years now. Huge difference in blood pressure and breathing. I’ll have nights every now and then where I indulge in a few cigs, and I always feel it the next morning.

        1. Well, good advice, because I like the thing, but it is funny how it causes me to consume more nicotine. And it’s such a different experience than a cigarette. Smoking a cigarette is a…time-based experience. You know you’re going to probably be smoking the whole thing and that takes some time. Whereas you can hit the vaper any time you want because there’s no “flame” to go out. So with the vaper, I’ll just pick it up and take a hit or two. Much more like taking a bong hit or a sip of alcohol.

          That shit is cheap, too, especially compared to smokes.

          1. I’m the same, though to smoke inside at work rather than avoiding the cold. I use the low level nicotine juice so I doubt it’s increasing my nicotine consumption. In any case there is no evidence showing that nicotine is harmful in and of itself and in fact might be healthy.

            1. My advice for both of you: Don’t worry so much about the nicotine. Propylene Glycol, in the first place, is a less efficient delivery system for nicotine than tobacco combustion. You’ll be fine 😛

    3. Several studies have been done, you can find links to many of them here:

  4. Honestly, I think it’s only a matter of time before all water faucets come with a warning label on them.

    1. The funny thing is that you’d probably find more toxins in tap water than you would in an e-cig.

      But in a discussion with nanny staters, you really get scolded for letting the facts get in the way of an otherwise excellent discussion about how e-cigs should be banned.

  5. I wonder if it has occurred to Lake to leave his lungs to science?

  6. After over four decades of smoking I was able to quit relatively painlessly after switching over to smoking an electronic cigarette for two or three months.

    Thankfully, I was able to slip though before the do-gooders had managed to seal off that avenue of escape. Dealing with advanced asbestos related lung disease, my smoking was not helping at all.

    No one has any business making choices for anyone but themselves. No good can ever come from people sticking their noses in where they don’t belong.

    The well intention-ed for all the harm in ignorance they do to others are the worst plague the world has ever known.

    1. They’re not well-intentioned. They have evil intentions, to control people because fuck you, that’s why.

      Every time these nannies claim to be well-intentioned, people need to push back and say “No, you’re not.”

  7. Actually ethylene glycol, the more common antifreeze component, isn’t very toxic either in small quantities. The problem with EG is that it tastes sweet, so animals, children, and other idiots can drink a lot of it, while PG tastes terrible.

    As for the claim that PG is chemically similar to EG… I wonder if that guy knows that cyanide and atmospheric nitrogen are only one atom apart.

    1. I wonder if that guy knows that cyanide and atmospheric nitrogen are only one atom apart

      BUT BUT BUT… they don’t sound the same.

    2. As for the claim that PG is chemically similar to EG…

      Like the annoying Splenda tagline: “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.”

      How about: “Chlorine – made from salt, so it tastes like salt.” Or, “Sodium – made from salt, so dissolves in water like salt.”

    3. N2 + 2CO2 – 2CN + 2O2

      Solve the “greenhouse gas” problem at the same time!

      1. Gah, that minus sign is supposed to be an arrow. I forgot you can’t use the fucking greater than/less than signs round these parts.

    4. On an off-topic note, you just reminded me of the fact that if we changed only roughly 2% of our DNA, we would essentially revert back to being chimpanzees. No one told me that we did that to FDA employees 😛

  8. What? I thought we weren’t supposed to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    1. Say hello to my little friend. The precautionary principle.

  9. we are just being very cautious about the long-term consequences of its use. It comes out of China. It’s unregulated.

    You have to admit he’s got a point.

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. (slow claps)

    2. What point? That some e-juice comes from China? There are a lot of things you could get from China. And, like most of those, you can also get juice that does not. There are plenty of juice vendors that use regulated ingredients, mixed right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

      So, no, he doesn’t have a point. He has an obvious exaggeration calculated to scare the ignorant.

      1. The “sent from my iphone” thing was clearly intended to show the irony and mock the assertion.

        Halo Ecigs is one such US vendor of ejuice. I like some of their stuff, but frankly think the concerns over chinese juice is overblown.

      2. OK, you’ve convinced me.

    3. I’ve tested juice from Germany that has more impurities in it than juice from China 😛 😛

  10. I wonder if that guy knows that cyanide and atmospheric nitrogen are only one atom apart.

    he used to, but he lost his memory when he started inhaling koolaid

  11. I still smoke outside and take hits off the vaper inside, so my nicotine consumption has gone up.

    Mission accomplished!

  12. What exactly is giving Eli a case of the vapors?

    1. BOO HISS

  13. I bought my friend an e-cig to try and get him to quit but within a few days he was back to the regular ones. I think a lot of people are just as addicted to the other chemicals they put in there, not just the nicotine.

    I was watching a Penn Jillette video the other day and he was like “The government spends millions subsidizing tobacco farmers while at the same time spends millions trying to get people to quit tobacco. I’m not even saying to stop doing both, but at least stop doing one of them!”

    Of course, judging by the large number of “Penn is a moron” type comments, apparently even that is too much for most people.

    1. I think a lot of people are just as addicted to the other chemicals they put in there, not just the nicotine.

      E-cigs, while providing most of the benifits of cigarettes (doubled short-term memory, appetite supression, decreased reaction time, increased alertness) do not get you high. There is no buzz from the nicotine. The buzz comes from the other chemicles.

    2. iirc, the process of burning tobacco has some interesting properties similar to antidepressants. the nicotine isn’t what actually gives you the buzz, it’s the alkaloids, the smoke, etc.

      I’ve gotten a nic buzz from e-cigarettes but it’s nothing approaching combustible cigarettes. Consequently, I believe, the cravings are much less. Almost feels like craving coffee and that’s pretty apt because it is a stimulant. I’ve also cut down my coffee consumption considerably, when you can just press a button with these, but that’s just me.

      One recommendation I would give to someone trying to switch is not to get a grocery store e-cig. You want something that you can fill with your own e-liquid, not only because it’s much cheaper in the long run but you’re not limited to, like, eight flavors? Personally, I’ve tried a few of gas station e-cigs but still smoked while using them (cut back the cigs considerably though.) Luckily there was a smoke shop around that didn’t suck and gave me a cigar sized battery and a tank for it to hold e-liquid in, haven’t smoked a single cigarette since.

      1. I’m sure the burning adds more effect but how does this explain smokeless tobacco? I always got a much more massive buzz from a fat lip of dip than any cigarette or cigar.

        1. tobacco alkaloids

          1. yes but then you need to amend this:

            iirc, the process of burning tobacco has some interesting properties similar to antidepressants.

  14. My wife used to watch that chick show Sex City. I face the wall and stab myself in the face with a rusty fork as that was less painful than watching the show. However, occasionally I would accidentally see the TV. There was a gay character on the show, not sure who he was, but I would swear the pic at the top of this page is of that guy.

    1. I know your pain. And yes, the guy does look like match.

    2. It looks like he dipped his head in baby tallow then put on some nazi glasses.

    3. I was going to say he looks like the guy from White Collar, but yeah.

  15. Urge to punch…rising.

  16. I don’t smoke tobacco but the one time I tried an E-Cig it seemed to me like it would be pretty easy to take it apart and use cannabis tincture to create a portable one-hit (or thirty hit) cannabis vaporizer. I was going to do it myself but couldn’t get motivated enough (for some reason har har) to try to track down any propylene glycol. (and *ahem* of course I have no idea where to procure any cannabis tincture, Hi Big Bro)

    Plus I admit I was a little leery of inhaling from a Chinese micro-heating element. Superstitious, I know, but hey.

    1. PG is a non-polar solvent, so gentle heating of cannabis in PG should extract some of the THC. If you’ve ever done a canola oil extraction to make brownies, you could probably follow that very closely and get a satisfactory product… I hear.

  17. I could have sworn antifreeze was ethylene glycol.

  18. I smoked reds then lights for 30 years. Once I was in my 30s I tried everything to quit. Pills, gum, patch… nothing worked until the ecigs. Now smoke free for 2 years and can’t stand the smell of the cigs I loved for 3 decades.

    Fuck the fucking fucks. They don’t give a shit about health, they can’t stand not being in control. May the burn in a very smoke filled he’ll.

  19. Breathing air is not totally free of risk, given the pollution you find in the atmosphere. But that doesn’t mean people should stop breathing.

  20. Just switched to an e-cig 15 days ago. Thought I’d mention that most savvy shops have vegetable based solutions. Should be less harmful. Surprised the author didn’t mention that alternative.

    1. Vegetable glycerin has problems of its own. First of all, it gunks up the atomizer. A lot! You get that burnt taste in your mouth rather quickly because the silica component used to wick it up isn’t able to absorb the VG quickly enough. Propylene glycol remains a viable solution.

      Vegetable glycerin should be used in atomizers with a stainless steel mesh wick that has a low-enough grit to pull up the substance quickly. Since those atomizers are expensive and very difficult to set up, PG remains the most viable option in terms of cost, as well.

  21. Great article! I love e-cig!

  22. You somehow reminded me of the hilarious paradox where the government bans soldiers and astronauts from smoking in certain situations. They say it’s unhealthy for them to smoke in enclosed spaces. It’s also unhealthy to lose 20% of your muscle mass spending a few weeks in zero-G environments, not to mention getting shot by bullets. 😀 😀 😀

  23. propylene glycol is almost never used in E-Cigarettes anymore. this is old news.

  24. Driven by a strong tobacco lobby, the anti electronic smoking/ vaping group will throw as much rubbish as they can muster to stop the progress of the best alternative available today. I know many of my friends who have used these devices with liquids and have started to feel much better as a result.

  25. Waiting For More new Update and I Already Read your Recent Post its Great virgin vapors

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