Policy Documents

Electronic Cigarettes are the Tobacco Harm Reduction Phenomenon of the Year - But will they Survive?

Paul L. Bergen and Courtney E. Heffernan –
January 1, 2010

Probably the most important occurrences in tobacco harm reduction (THR) for the period covered by this yearbook relate to the emergence of electronic cigarettes, also known as e-cigarettes, or personal vaporizers. While millions of words about e-cigarettes appeared online over the last year or two, it is difficult to find anything that serves as a primer on the topic and a recounting of recent events. Because the topic is so important, we chose to create this original analysis for the book to fill that gap. 

As described in more detail below, the e-cigarette is typically a cigarette shaped device that aerosolizes nicotine and delivers it via a propylene glycol vapor. Though it mimics smoking, it is a combustion-free source of nicotine, making it a candidate for tobacco harm reduction given that smoke has been associated with almost all of the harm from smoking (Phillips & Heavner 2009, Royal College of Physicians 2007, Rodu 1994). Based on currently available evidence, the e-cigarette appears to cause only a fraction of the risk of smoking, but in many other respects seems to be quite similar. In the paragraphs that follow, a brief history of the e-cigarette, along with its merits and limitations for THR will be discussed.