Posts Tagged ‘nicotine’

Science of electronic cigarettes, as seen on the Tourist

// January 2nd, 2011 // 1 Comment » // How Things Work, Science in the Movies

Happy New Year! On the first of January, I went to see The Tourist. It promised to be an excessively attractive movie starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, the two best heartthrobs on screen. I won’t spoil the plot, but I will say that one cool gadget graces the scene. The electronic cigarette.

As described in the movie, the electronic cigarette does not emit smoke, just vapour. The one in the move was shaped like a cigarette, complete with a red LED light on the end for a burning ember. He tapped the end to put it out, but I don’t think that’s necessary. The automatic versions just turn on when you breathe in, a sensor recognizes the airflow, and I’d say it turns off afterward.

Electronic cigarettes, designed by Chinese company Ruyan “to resemble smoking”, come in a variety of designs. From classic cigarettes to cigars to pipes. Even a ballpoint pen, so you can look like you’re intelligently thinking witty thoughts while taking a sneaky huff.

All the designs have the same basic features. A cylindrical battery, a heating element, and a mouthpiece. When the sensor picks up air flow, it switches on the battery which heats up the element, vapourising the nicotine mixture absorbed on material in the mouthpiece. Manual versions lack a sensor, and you have to press a button to get them started. The nicotine can be replenished by dripping fluid refills onto the absorbant material, or buying a new prefilled mouthpiece.

An electonic cigarette

An electonic cigarette

But it’s the mixture itself that’s really cool. It comes in a variety of nicotine levels and a variety of FLAVOURS. Some are designed to taste like certain brands (such as Malboro), some taste like regular ciggies, some are menthol, and others come in tastes of caramel, coffee or vanilla. One recipe listed on Wikipedia contains hardly any nicotine, but 8% alcohol. That’s a 16 proof cigarette delivered straight to your lungs! Wow. Seems dangerous.

What I wanted to know was how do electronic ciggies compare to the real thing when it comes to health. It seems like we’re still unsure. Electronic cigarettes only hit the market in 2004, so they’re pretty new still. Most countries are taking a conservative stance. In England they can be bought in pubs and smoked indoors. In New Zealand they are only available in pharmacies. In Australia it is illegal to sell them, but they can be purchased over the internet for personal use, and I believe there are no laws against it. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The debate seems to center around the fact that these electronic cigarettes are KIND OF tobacco products and KIND OF smoking cessation aids… but kind of not. No studies have been done to show that they could help people quit smoking and become nicotine free. To me it seems more like you would quit smoking cigarettes, and start smoking the electronic version instead.

And what’s the harm in that? Most of the damage caused by smoking is not due to nicotine itself. It’s all the other crazy chemicals that come with it which cause the cancer and lung damage and so forth. Nicotine is just the stuff that keeps people coming back. It’s highly addictive, working on the reward system of the brain and our favourite neurotransmitter, dopamine. Smokeless cigarettes are a way to enjoy nicotine without getting a hefty dose of dangerous chemical cocktails. Plus the secondhand smoke is safer. So it’s an example of harm reduction. Plus your teeth would get whiter.

Of course, nicotine is not exactly a friendly chemical. It might not cause cancer, but it IS highly toxic. 60 mg can be toxic to an adult. Nicotine is made by the tobacco plant as an insecticide, need I say more? In fact, it’s also made by other members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, such as tomatoes. That explains why my basil plant is getting torn to pieces by insects while the tomato plant right next to it is still intact. So maybe we don’t want to encourage people to smoke anything.

But gun to my head, I think the electronic cigarette is a good thing. I don’t think young kids are going to be swayed by sexy marketing into becoming the next generation of smokers. I don’t think we’d allow such sexy marketing in the first place. I don’t even know why the government allows cigarettes to be sold at all; the health problems must cost the economy millions every year. But what do you think? Do you think electronic cigarettes would be the lesser of two evils, or a new evil all on its own, ready to pounce on hapless youths and struggling smokers and catch them forever with nicotine claws.






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