I grew up in an analog world. My books were made out of paper. My music was made out of tape and later discs. So were the movies I watched. This age is gone. Everything I do now has been digitized, packaged in gadgets that comes with me everywhere I go. Well, almost everything. The lone holdout?
I have been smoking for nearly 17 years. Yes, I started when I was a teenager and have continued throughout my entire adult life. When I leave my apartment these days, I check my pockets to make sure I have my keys, my wallet, my smartphones, a lighter and a pack of smokes. This ritualistic pat down has become such a part of my existence that I hardly even think about it anymore.
It may be time to change this, though. My cigarettes, the last bastion of my analog life, are about to be replaced by gadgets. After being a slave to cigarettes for nearly two decades, it is time to stop.
In the stead of pure Virginia tobacco, my need for nicotine will henceforth be delivered in atomized vapor through e-cigarettes.
An e-cigarette? Really? What is this thing anyway?
Yes, Mom, I’ll Quit
My mother has been trying to get me to quit smoking for years. Over time, she has become not-so-subtle about it. One year I found a box of nicotine patches in my Christmas stocking. Next year it was nicotine gum. My mother doesn’t ask me when I am going to settle down and have a kid or two or when if I am eating enough. She asks me, “have you quit smoking yet?” Every. Damn. Conversation.
The woman has a point. She was raised by smokers and has asthma because of it. Her father died of emphysema in his 90s after living with the disease for years. She is my mother, she loves me and she wants to spare me from a grim, painful, tobacco-driven fate.
Yes, Mom, I get it.
For my birthday this year, I vaguely asked my mother for e-cigarettes via text message. About an hour later I had an email that a starter kit from e-cigarette maker Green Smoke was in the mail. I have friends who have jumped on the e-cigarette bandwagon. So, might as well give it a shot.
Lots Of Choices
Green Smoke makes e-cigarettes that use rechargeable batteries and replaceable nicotine-filled atomizers (more on this below). I had never heard of the brand, but it seems as good as any other, I suppose. These days, there are a lot of choices.
The most popular brands are NJOY (which notorious Silicon Valley wag Sean Parker has invested in), Green Smoke, blu eCig, Logic and 21st Century. If you look online, you will find hundreds of different brands made by companies across the world.
Honestly, it's almost impossible to really tell the difference between them. Some come as a stand alone package you can buy in a convenience store (blu); others can only be ordered online. Some create a lot of smoke-like vapor when you exhale, while others emit very little. Most have tips that light up when you inhale in a variety of colors—orange, blue, green and so forth.
How E-Cigarettes Work
Typically, e-cigarettes consist of two components: a battery and an atomizer. The battery is usually the long stem of the e-cig that mimics where the tobacco would be in a normal cigarette. The “filter” of the e-cig holds the actual nicotine and turns it into nicotine-filled water vapor when you suck on it.
The atomizer—also called a "cartomizer" when the atomizer and liquid nicotine cartridge are housed in the same unit—consists of a heating coil that vaporizes the liquid nicotine and other flavored chemicals. When a person inhales, the atomizer turns the liquid to vapor that can strongly resemble smoke when exhaled.
Plenty of variations exist. Some types of e-cigarettes use liquid containers that are fed into the atomizer. Some people use these liquid chambers to hold THC, the primary chemical in marijuana, instead of nicotine. Disposable e-cigarettes consist of a battery unit and cartomizer that are designed to be thrown out after use.
Similarly, some e-cigarette batteries use electronic airflow sensors to activate the atomizer during inhalation. Others require the user to press a button, giving the, uh, "smoker" manual control over the production of vapor.
Depending on the brand, a nicotine cartridge can hold the equivalent of 20 to 30 cigarettes. When “smoking” them, you get a tickle in the back of your throat and the taste of unfiltered nicotine (if you have ever used a nicotine patch, lozenge or gum, you know what this tastes like) and often some type of flavor. Green Smoke has several different kinds of flavored cartomizers meant to mimic the taste of tobacco.
Starter kits likewise vary. Usually they include one or two batteries and cartomizers equivalent to five or 10 packs—between a half and a full carton—of cigarettes. Typically, starter kits range between $70 to $100. Individual disposable e-cigarettes, like the kind that blu sells in convenience stores, range between $7 and $10.
Are E-Cigarettes Healthy?
The U.S. Food And Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved e-cigarettes as safe alternatives to regular cigarettes, citing lack of research. The FDA doesn't know if they're safe for their intended use, how much nicotine or harmful chemicals are inhaled during use or if there are any benefits associated with the use of e-cigarettes.
What we do know about e-cigarettes is that they sidestep some of the risks associated with burning and smoking actual tobacco. They don't produce tar or other harmful combustion products, they're free from pesticides that can contaminate tobacco leaves used in cigarettes and they don't contain the fiberglass and ammonia found in normal cigarette filters. The makers of e-cigarettes claim there's no danger of “second hand vapor” analogous to second hand smoke because their products emit only harmless water vapor.
Concerns over e-cigarettes center over whether or not certain chemicals found within the atomizers are harmful, such as propylene glycol, polyethylene glycol or vegetable glycerin. These chemicals can often be found in food and items such as tooth paste, although people don't usually inhale them. Experts remain concerned about the health effects of inhaling nicotine vapor and, more broadly, whether social acceptance of e-smoking might encourage more people to smoke actual tobacco.
A 2010 study by the Boston University School of Public Health stated that e-cigarettes are “much safer” than traditional cigarettes. Phys.org notes the conclusions from the study:
"Few, if any, chemicals at levels detected in electronic cigarettes raise serious health concerns," the authors said. "Although the existing research does not warrant a conclusion that electronic cigarettes are safe in absolute terms and further clinical studies are needed to comprehensively assess the safety of electronic cigarettes, a preponderance of the available evidence shows them to be much safer than tobacco cigarettes and comparable in toxicity to conventional nicotine replacement products."
Quitting And The End Of My Analog Era
I have had the Green Smoke cigarettes for about a month. I have not quit smoking, nor have I really cut back yet. My plan, over time, is to increase the amount I smoke the e-cigarette while cutting back on actual tobacco cigarettes. A friend of mine is trying something similar. Last time we saw each other, we were both smoking real cigarettes. (Don’t tell our girlfriends.)
I have no idea if this is going to work.
Cigarettes have long been an escape and a social mechanism for me. If I need a break from work, I duck out for a smoke. If I want “fresh air," I step outside for a smoke. If I feel like socializing or meeting other random people, I step outside for a smoke. If I feel like a smoke, I step outside for a smoke. Cigarettes are a habit and a lifestyle. Can an e-cigarette replace that?
I have no idea.
The only thing I really do know about e-cigarettes is that my last pastime, habit, hobby … addiction … that has not been tied into a gadget has now been usurped by the technological revolution. I shed a small tear for that, if only for nostalgia’s sake.
But if e-cigarettes turn out to be a safe way for me to quick smoking, get healthy and cut down my reliance on nicotine, then maybe, just maybe, these gadgets end up saving me from the fate of my grandfather.