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E-Cigs & Traditional Cigarettes – What's the Difference?

Not long ago, if you saw someone exhaling a white cloud you could be pretty sure they were smoking a cigarette. That’s all changing though, as thousands of smokers every week switch to electronic cigarettes. Maybe it’s not surprising that this has caused some confusion; many people aren’t sure what the difference is between electronic cigarettes and the traditional kind. Some rail operators and even pubs have claimed the reason they ban e-cigs is that people can’t tell them apart. So what exactly are the differences?

In fact a better question would be, what do electronic and tobacco cigarettes have in common? The answer is not much! Both let you inhale a substance that (usually) contains nicotine, and really that’s about it. A lot of the time they don’t even look similar; early e-cigs were made to look like the tobacco kind, right down to a red LED that makes the end glow when you inhale, but many modern ones don’t look anything like a cigarette. Let’s look at exactly what the differences are.

A cigarette is a paper tube filled with shredded tobacco, and most of them have a filter at one end. When it’s lit and inhaled the tobacco (and the paper) burns, and the smoker inhales the smoke that’s produced. An e-cig is completely different. It’s an electronic device with a battery, switch, heating element and liquid reservoir; when the user inhales some of the liquid is evaporated and the vapour is drawn out through the mouthpiece. Nothing is burned. Obviously a cigarette is a disposable item; once it’s burned down to the filter the remains are thrown away. There are disposable e-cigarettes, but even they last for several hours at least; most models can either be fitted with a new liquid cartridge or refilled, so they don’t create as much litter.

When tobacco is burned hundreds of harmful substances are created, and the smoker inhales these in the smoke. That’s why cigarettes cause a list of health problems that include cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and many other serious conditions. E-cigarettes don’t contain any tobacco. The liquid contains propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine, flavourings, distilled water and nicotine. All these ingredients are safe, and because nothing burns when the e-cig is used they aren’t turned into toxic or carcinogenic substances. Nobody has ever died or become seriously ill from using an e-cig. A few people have had minor side effects, but usually this is something like a dry mouth or a sneeze.

One big concern with cigarettes is the danger to other people. It’s now known that inhaling other people’s cigarette smoke won’t increase your risk of lung cancer unless you actually live with a smoker for 30 years or more, but it can cause other diseases. As these include serious issues like heart disease it’s no surprise that second hand smoke is a major health concern. Electronic cigarettes don’t have this problem. The vapour they release contains only water vapour, propylene glycol and tiny amounts of flavourings and nicotine. Some critics have claimed that the nicotine from the vapour could harm other people or even get them addicted, but this is absolute nonsense. If you spent a few hours in a bar filled with people who were using e-cigs you’d get less nicotine than you would from a glass of tomato juice. That’s something e-cig opponents won’t tell you – nicotine is a natural substance and it’s found in most vegetables, including aubergine, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.

Electronic cigarettes got their name because of what they do – deliver nicotine – and not because of what they are. They’re not actually cigarettes at all, but advanced personal vaporisers. They have almost nothing in common with cigarettes, and that includes their health effects. What they do is take all the good things about cigarettes – the rituals, the taste and feel, the social aspect and the ability to enjoy the benefits of nicotine – and get rid of the dangers.