Vaporizing the E-Cigarette Myth
By Tamer Abouras
In a BBC television adaptation of Anne Bronte’s “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall,” there is an insightful quote that ironically does not appear in the novel itself: “We are all too eager to think our pleasures must be blessed.”
Pulling back from the spiritual context of that point, it could be translated into plain speech as “we’re always looking for a loophole we can feel good about.” Without devolving into a clichéd commentary on modern American life, it really is peculiar how we like to curb bad habits without actually doing so.
Whether it’s dieting but still eating sweets or “working smarter” to create more time off, society tends to fetishize self-improvement and efficiency even while most of us would love to (essentially) maintain the status quo.
Electronic cigarettes and “vaping” play right into this. The early advertisements for them, if you remember, were brazen, defiant and presumably intended to be charismatic. They certainly took an appealing tone when they ran through the reasons why these were not your father’s — or grandfather’s — cancer-causing cigarettes of old. The twofold central premise: smokers have been demonized long enough and there’s a healthy way to indulge your habit. “Take back your freedom.”
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As shaky and specious as that claim has always sounded, the relative newness of these devices has allowed the marketing pitches to skate by while research is conducted on their veracity. And if this week’s study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health is any sort of verdict, they’re about to evaporate.
According to the Harvard Gazette, researchers from the school said that “Diacetyl, a flavoring chemical linked to cases of severe respiratory disease, was found in more than 75% of flavored electronic cigarettes and refill liquids they tested.”
In a study published online in Environmental Health Perspectives this week, the finding of diacetyl is potentially game-changing, due to the fact that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been warning workers for over a decade about the substance, which was first found to have an “association between inhaling the chemical and the debilitating respiratory disease bronchiolitis obliterans, colloquially known as ‘popcorn lung’ because it first appeared in workers who inhaled artificial butter flavor in microwave popcorn processing facilities.”
“Recognition of the hazards associated with inhaling flavoring chemicals started with ‘popcorn lung’ over a decade ago. However, diacetyl and other related flavoring chemicals are used in many other flavors beyond butter-flavored popcorn, including fruit flavors, alcohol flavors, and, we learned in our study, candy-flavored e-cigarettes,” said lead author Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment sciences.
Taken together, diacetyl and two other related compounds — acetoin and 2,3-pentanedione — were detected in 47 of the 51 flavors tested, which would lead you to believe that sooner rather than later, “e-cigs” are going to start leaving a bad taste in the mouths of consumers.
“Since most of the health concerns about e-cigarettes have focused on nicotine, there is still much we do not know about e-cigarettes. In addition to containing varying levels of the addictive substance nicotine, they also contain other cancer-causing chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and as our study shows, flavoring chemicals that can cause lung damage,” said study co-author and Elkan Blout professor of environmental genetics, David Christiani.
Formaldehyde, because contrary to the advertisements, e-cigarettes could possibly bring you close enough to death to taste it.