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Secondhand Tobacco Smoke vs. E-Cigarette Vapor

Posted by on January 30, 2014 . 0 Comments.

“Isn’t smoking an e-cigarette just like smoking tobacco?”  You have heard the question many times and have lost count.  The answer has always been and will always be deceptively simple; so simple, many opponents of e-cigarettes stumble over it, ignore it, belittle it and generally scoff at the suggestion, even if they take the time to hear the brief answer: “No.”


Appearances aside, the two activities are sufficiently dissimilar to make the above answer a solid and supportable statement.


Let’s concentrate on the one fact that is at the forefront of concern to tobacco smokers who are absorbing the deluge of informative studies substantiating what we have known since the 60s.  The issue is the harmful effect of secondhand tobacco smoke vs. e-cigarette vapor.


“It’s just the same,” is the baseless echo.  Most arguments that have lost the effort of logical conclusions end up resorting to lackluster attacks.  Such are the arguments comparing secondhand tobacco smoke to e-cigarette vapor.


Do both activities exhale something into the air?  Yes, they do, but analysis of the details will reveal distinct differences.  By appearance, a smoker and a vaper act out a similar routine.  They both hold a cylindrical device up to the lips, inhale, hold briefly and exhale.  The exhaled substance leaves the mouth as a rising, dissipating cloud.  There is a momentary delay of seconds to minutes and the process is repeated.  And that is where the similarities end.


We have ignored the beginning of the tobacco cigarette-smoking exercise because e-cigarettes do not have an equivalent opening act: lighting the tobacco cigarette.  We have also ignored the closing act of tobacco smoking.  There is no need to crush an e-cigarette into an ash tray, into the pavement, or toss it out of the car window, as if ash trays in cars were invented for some other purpose.


The next argument is that most of the smoke from a tobacco cigarette ends up in the smoker’s lungs; a retort to the secondhand smoke argument.  Some of it is exhaled, this is obvious, but, after all, if the cancer claims are true, it follows that this statement is also true, no?  Well, no.  The cancer side is true (along with emphysema, heart disease, and a number of other ailments).  But it is not true that most smoke stays in the lungs.


Let’s remember that the tobacco smoking begins by setting the cigarette on fire.  Smoke is continuously rising from the burning cigarette.  It is not going into the smoker’s body unless the smoker has the cigarette in the mouth while inhaling.  Also, let us recall that smoking and vaping both involve some delay between puffs.  During the delay, the tobacco cigarette is still burning, still emitting smoke – sometimes from both ends! – While the e-cigarette is emitting… nothing.  Its process of vaporizing functions only by inhaling on the mouthpiece.


The above is clear and undeniable.  But let’s apply some simple science just to drive the point home.


In 2003, the University of Minnesota concluded a study of several years observing the tobacco smoking process under detailed, laboratory conditions.  Their results applied some numbers to the observation of idle burning tobacco cigarettes along with active inhaling and exhaling.  The following assumes a tobacco cigarette that is lit and sustains burning throughout its use until the tobacco is consumed down to the disposed butt.


The idle time of the typical burning tobacco cigarette in between puffs collectively releases 85 percent of its smoke directly into the air.  (This also means that 85 percent of its cost is literally up in smoke!)  It is never inhaled into the smoker’s body.  That leaves only 15 percent of the available smoke that is actually inhaled.  The smoker retains only 1.5 percent of the smoke particulate in the respiratory system; the balance is exhaled.  This means that a whopping 98.5 percent of a tobacco cigarette’s available smoke is released into the air as secondhand smoke.


Does that mean that a non-smoker adjacent to a smoker, or multiple smokers, may be put at greater risk from the effects of tar and nicotine and hundreds of other identified compounds; many of which are known harmful products, than even the smoker absorbs- at least for the brief time of exposure?  This is one reason why the hammer came down so suddenly and decisively against involuntary occupational exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke.


Granted, collective exposure time for a smoker is much longer than that of a non-smoker, which is why the number of smokers who contract cancer, heart disease, etc., is much higher than for the non-smoker.  However, involuntary exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke has resulted in sufficient non-smoker disease to make the matter a primary occupational and overall lifestyle concern.


By comparison, let’s look at the e-cigarette emission of secondhand vapor.  First of all, it is not smoke.  The product begins as a liquid that is atomized as it is inhaled and is released only by inhalation; there is no residual release of vapor between puffs.


There are a variety of ingredients combined in e-cigarette liquid.  The base is almost always a glycol/glycerin compound.  As this is absorbed into the body when inhaling, and mostly exhaled (we assume that the same numbers with inhalation and exhalation of tobacco smoke apply to e-cigarette vapor; there are not yet sufficient study results to quantify it), it must be considered a potential secondhand product. 


Most e-cigarette liquid solutions contain nicotine, added artificially, which will also be exhaled as a content of secondhand vapor.  There are also flavor compounds that are inhaled and exhaled.  


However, significant in its absence is tar.  While an inherent product of tobacco – it cannot be processed out of the product because it is, itself, a product of burning the tobacco – it is not a part of e-cigarette vaping because nothing is burned.


It must be concluded that secondhand vapor has far less effect than secondhand tobacco smoke with regard to volume per time of exposure and to its potential for harm.  

Last update: January 30, 2014


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