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Photo: Marta Kierkus

Due to a marked absence of tobacco, electronic cigarettes have been widely embraced as a healthy alternative to smoking—but are they really?

E-cigarettes first emerged in the North American market in 2005–06, after an initial introduction in China a few years prior. The use of these devices, often viewed as an effective method of quitting conventional cigarettes, has seen a steady increase since their release.

Unfortunately, there’s far too much conflicting debate between scientists to support the idea that e-cigarettes eclipse conventional cigarettes in terms of health benefits. Furthermore, these new devices are mostly unregulated in Canada, which bodes problems for how they are advertised and sold.

Some scientists have reported that the significantly lower concentration of carcinogens in these devices makes them an obvious improvement on conventional cigarettes. As well as containing fewer toxins, the water vapour produced by e-cigarettes is currently believed to have little to no negative effects on bystanders, thereby eliminating the health risks of secondhand smoke.

However, proponents of e-cigarettes have been met with an equal number of detractors. The chemical compound of the liquid in the cartridges is a serious concern because of the presence of liquid nicotine, a small dose of which can be harmful to users. Another troubling ingredient is that of propylene glycol, since this chemical compound is a major component of antifreeze and is a known respiratory irritant when inhaled. Essentially, while electronic cigarettes are favourable when compared to conventional cigarettes, they still contain unhealthy toxins that are best kept out of your body.

Furthermore, with such a new product out on the market, there’s yet to be sufficient evidence to support the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a method to help one quit smoking. While studies have emerged supporting both sides of the debate, the only thing that’s certain is uncertainty. Some people reported they were able to completely replace cigarettes with e-cigarettes. Others reported using them in tandem with conventional cigarettes, which frankly defeats the purpose.

The unregulated advertisement and sale of these products is cause for concern, mostly because they are being marketed to those who are not normally smokers, or even people who have never touched a real cigarette before. Since e-cigarettes come in flavours like bubblegum and cotton candy, there is understandable anxiety about them being marketed to kids.

While electronic cigarette companies desperately want to be viewed as the lesser of two evils in the tobacco industry, there just isn’t enough scientific certainty to back up that claim.

In order to be truly confident in whether e-cigarette manufacturers have consumers’ well-being in mind, Health Canada will need to tighten up regulations on how these devices are sold. The scientific community will also have to come to a stronger consensus on their health benefits and drawbacks. Until then, puff at your own risk.