Quit, Die, or Switch

Recently I switched to electronic cigarettes. There was an “oh shit” moment when I realized that in 20 years, e-cigarettes will have almost entirely replaced conventional cigarettes. The overriding reason for this is that e-cigarettes probably do not cause cancer, emphysema, etc. This means that a smoker essentially has three alternatives: quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes. I realized that this is a device which will save many, many lives.

What is an e-cigarette?

An e-cigarette is a vaporizer which vaporizes a fluid, called “e-fluid,” to create an experience like smoking a cigarette. The e-fluid usually consists of glycerin and/or propylene glycol, nicotine, and artificial flavorings. Glycerin and propylene glycol are synthetic sugars. Except for nictonine, all of the ingredients of e-fluid are common food additives.

An e-cigarette consists of three things: a cartridge, an atomizer, and a rechargeable battery. These are joined into a device that looks like a cigarette. The cartridge is a container for e-fluid. The atomizer is a heating element which vaporizes the e-fluid. The battery powers the atomizer. Usually the cartridge and the atomizer are joined in one replaceable container called a “cartomizer.”

Some e-cigarettes use cartridges pre-filled with e-fluid, which have to be replaced when the e-fluid runs out. (Usually they say that one cartridge is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.) Other e-cigarettes use empty cartridges, which you fill with separately sold e-fluid. In the latter case it is possible to use e-fluids which come in thousands of different flavors.

Why do we care?

E-cigarettes probably do not have the health risks that cigarettes have. This would mean that a person could smoke e-cigarettes for their whole life without incurring any health problems. This provides a third alternative to smokers. Smokers can quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes.

Are e-cigarettes really safe?

Except for nicotine, all of the ingredients in e-fluid are common food additives. This means that they probably do not carry any health risks.

Nicotine is a toxin. But, it is only one of many toxic chemicals in cigarettes. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including 19 known carcinogens, some of which are radioactive carcinogens. It is generally believed that most of the negative health effects of cigarettes do not come from nicotine.

We do not know for sure that e-cigarettes are safe, and we will not know this until some good studies are published on the topic. The really conclusive studies probably will not exist for 50 years or so, since we will probably need to actually watch people smoke e-cigarettes for decades and see what happens to them, to know for sure.

But our existing knowledge is enough to say that e-cigarettes probably are safe. Perhaps the really interesting question is not, are e-cigarettes safe, but why are we inclined to assume that they are dangerous?

Notice that, in scientific terms, e-cigarettes have almost nothing to do with cigarettes. The similarity is a purely human one: they look similar and serve a similar function. They feel similar to us, though in reality they are not similar things.

The fact that they feel similar leads to a psychological phenomenon where we propagate our fear of cigarettes to e-cigarettes. This “transference of fear” is the sort of thing that would have been useful in our ancestral environment. If your friend gets bitten by a snake and dies, you will learn to fear any unfamilar snake. Perhaps if you had never seen a garden hose before, you might be afraid of it.

So we find a situation with e-cigarettes where our instincts tell us to fear them, and science tells us that there is little to fear.

How much do they cost?

To start smoking e-cigarettes, one has to buy a “starter kit,” containing a battery, a charger, cartomizers, etc. Then one periodically needs to buy new cartomizers and/or e-fluid.

The startup costs of e-cigarette smoking are higher than cigarettes, but the costs over time are lower. Starter kits range in cost from around ten dollars to over a hundred. Cartomizers typically cost two or three dollars.

Do they taste like cigarettes?

E-cigarettes do not taste like cigarettes, despite the efforts of manufacturers to make them as close as possible. This is the biggest complaint I hear from people about e-cigarettes. People don’t want to smoke an e-cigarette; they want to smoke a cigarette.

I think, however, that this is mostly a matter of what people are used to. When I first smoked an e-cigarette, I didn’t like it. But I got used to it. Now when I smoke cigarettes, I wish that I was smoking an e-cigarette. In other words, the phenomenon has been turned on its head. So I think that it is familiarity and habit that makes people want their smoke to taste like a cigarette.

What’s the catch?

Right now there is a glut of brands of e-cigarettes, all of which are startup companies, and all of which sell incompatible components. (The e-fluid is the exception: it is cross-compatible between all e-cigarettes.) I have personally had trouble getting ahold of replacement components for my e-cigarettes.

This is the sort of problem that one runs into by being an early adopter. It will go away over time. Within several years, all of the gas stations will carry e-cigarette components, and a set of brands will emerge as dominant.

So, smokers, I present you with your options: quit, die, or switch.

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