E-Cigarette Vapor versus Cigarette Smoke: Is Vapor Really Safer?

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Author: Amber Henning
Date: 2016
Youth Substance Abuse: A Reference Handbook
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Series: Contemporary World Issues
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 139

E-Cigarette Vapor versus Cigarette Smoke: Is Vapor Really Safer?

Amber Henning

Electronic cigarettes have gained popularity more rapidly than almost any other contemporary consumer product on the market. The rise in this popularity has been attributed in large part Page 140  |  Top of Articleto the claim that e-cigarettes might be able to help one quit smoking while providing a healthier alternative to the traditional form of smoking tobacco.

However, as such a new product on the market, no one can really be sure what the long-term effects of the electronic versions will be. That is the reason that several researchers across the world are working hard to clear up the mystery surrounding the health effects of inhaling e-cigarette vapor.

Researchers in England have been at the forefront of e-cigarette studies that are often considered a benchmark for the industry. Public Health England published an expert independent evidence review in 2015 that purported to show that e-cigarettes are as much as 95 percent less harmful than their combustible predecessors ( McNeill 2015 ).

This was not the first time that researchers made claims of this nature. In fact, research has been piling up that e-cigarette vapor is much less harmful than cigarette smoke, a result that is coming from a variety of sources. Other prominent e-cigarette researchers, such as Robert West and Jamie Brown, outlined the potential benefits of e-cigarettes, stating that e-cigarette vapor contained far less toxins, in fact only about 1/20th that one would find in regular cigarettes ( Brown and West 2014 ).

A 2015 study also made similar comparisons, examining how e-cigarette vapor compared not just with smoke, but also with ambient, indoor air, exhaled tobacco smoke, and regular exhaled breath. The researchers accomplished the comparison by measuring the levels of 156 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The researchers tested two e-cigarettes and found 25 VOCs in the vapor of one model and 17 VOCs in the other. Compared to all other kinds of air measured, e-cigarette vapor contained less of these potentially volatile compounds. Normal exhaled breath tested for 36 VOCs, while indoor air tested at 42 VOCs ( Marco et al. 2015 ).

While it seems surprising that e-cigarette vapor contains less VOCs than the regular air one breathes, what is not a shock is how much safer they appear than regular cigarettes, where the Page 141  |  Top of Articlesmoke measures an astounding 86 VOCs. While not all VOCs are toxic, measuring their levels helps paints a clear picture that e-cigarette emissions really could be much safer than regular tobacco smoke.

A 2014 study also attempted to shed light on the nature of e-cigarette vapor by measuring harmful and potentially harmful constituents, otherwise referred to as HPHCs. They weighed the content of eight HPHCs, to determine the quantity in e-cigarette vapor, as well as ambient air and cigarette smoke.

The weight of the combined HPHCs in the sample size of e-cigarette vapor was recorded at less than 0.17 milligrams. The same researchers also determined that ambient air, which one breathes every day, has a comparable 0.16 milligrams of HPHCs. Again, cigarette smoke produced a staggering amount of HPHCs that measure at an average of 30.6 milligrams of HPHCs. The researchers even state that cigarette smoke “delivered approximately 1500 times more harmful and potentially harmful constituents tested” than the emissions from an e-cigarette aerosol or to the standing air in the room ( Tayarah et al. 2014 ).

Even though the majority of the research appears to be leaning in the direction of e-cigarettes being a safer alternative to smoking, the truth is there is still so much to learn about e-cigarette vapor and, most importantly, its long-term effects.

While e-cigarette vapor does seem to be less harmful than cigarette smoke, there is still question if there is some genuine potential for e-cigarettes to do a certain kind of harm of their own. Since e-cigarettes only first hit the market back in 2007 and 2008, there simply is not the kind of evidence available to support any claims that e-cigarettes could be good, or bad for users in the long-term sense. In addition, many who start using e-cigarettes either discontinue or greatly reduce their nicotine intake along the way, making it even more difficult to gauge long-term effects.

Another area of concern is the addictive nature of nicotine in general. Most e-cigarettes, although not all, do contain some Page 142  |  Top of Articleamount of nicotine. Nicotine’s addictive qualities make any item that contains nicotine, even those designed for smoking cessation purposes, a potential hazard for users who have struggled with a nicotine addiction. E-liquids used in e-cigarette devices, however, do come in varying nicotine strengths, giving the user the ability to taper off their intake and hopefully curb their addiction altogether.

Everyone wants an easy solution to the cigarette problem, but that simply does not exist. What we can hope is that all the evidence we are receiving is an indicator of the real long-term effect, if there is any at all, from using electronic cigarettes. What we are seeing now, in these studies and many others, is a promising glimpse—that perhaps these e-cigarette devices can provide users with an experience that is close enough to smoking, yet one that is far less dangerous, both to themselves and to others.


Brown, R., and J. West. 2014. “E-Cigarettes: Facts and Faction.” British Journal of General Practice. http://bjgp.org/content/64/626/442.full . Accessed on January 26, 2016.

Marco, E., et al. 2015. “A Rapid Method for the Chromatographic Analysis of Volatile Organic Compounds in Exhaled Breath of Tobacco Cigarette and Electronic Cigarette Smokers.” Journal of Chromatography A. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0021967315010821 . Accessed on January 25, 2016.

McNeill, A., et al. 2015. “E-cigarettes: An Evidence Update —A Report Commissioned by Public Health England.” Public Health England. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/457102/Ecigarettes_an_evidence_update_A_report_commissioned_by_Public_Health_England_FINAL.pdf . Accessed on January 26, 2016.

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Tayarah, R., et al. 2014. “Comparison of Select Analytes in Aerosol from E-cigarettes with Smoke from Conventional Cigarettes and with Ambient Air.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0273230014002505 . Accessed on January 25, 2016.

Amber Henning is a freelance writer and editor who is passionate about reporting and researching the truth behind the topics she covers. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and has extensive experience covering the scientific and consumer research behind e-cigarettes, as well as several other health and wellness topics.

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