Your Body: A Smarter Nicotine Fix?

January 31, 2014

The truth behind e-cigarettes

Courtney Love was spotted using one at the opera. David Letterman shared Katherine Heigl’s bejeweled version on his late-night show. Kate Moss even had her favorite brand flown to her in Spain last summer.

Electronic cigarettes have arrived, for better or worse. U.S. sales reached $1 billion in 2013 and are expected to double by 2014. An estimated 4 million Americans use them, and analysts say one-fifth of all adults in this country have tried “vaping,” as smoking e-cigarettes is called. These battery-powered devices simulate a “drag” of a conventional cigarette. But instead of burning tobacco, they work by heating up a fluid containing nicotine (the addictive substance in tobacco) plus other chemicals and artificial flavorings to create a vapor that can be inhaled into the lungs.

In the dance world, where tobacco use is particularly high, e-cigs can seem like a healthy alternative since they contain far less of many of the known carcinogens in cigarettes. They are also cheaper and can be used almost anywhere since their vapor eludes smoke detectors.

But strict comparisons are misleading. E-cigarettes can discourage smokers from fully quitting and actively seduce nonsmokers to take up the habit. And the ingredients, still unregulated and largely untested in the U.S., could prove harmful in their own right. Nonetheless, the Big Tobacco companies, which produce several of the most popular e-cigarettes, are pumping significant resources into recruiting new users, since e-cigs aren’t subject to the taxes or marketing restrictions of regular cigarettes.

What Are The Risks?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know how much nicotine you’re getting with each puff. Because the industry is not yet regulated, there is no standard amount. Monique Williams, who is completing her PhD, researching the contents of e-cigarette liquid and vapor at the University of California, Riverside, found that among popular brands, the nicotine concentration of e-cigarette cartridges varies from 0 to 24 milligrams. In comparison, the average tobacco cigarette contains 9 mg, with around 1 mg of that inhaled as it is smoked.

In order to transform nicotine into a vapor, the industry mixes it with propylene glycol and glycerin, two substances that are FDA-approved as additives in cosmetics and, in smaller amounts, foods and medicines. Preliminary data on inhaling propylene glycol reveals that it can decrease your lung capacity, a serious risk for athletes and dancers. Laboratory studies have also shown that several of the artificial flavorings, including ones used for cinnamon and coffee flavors, are damaging to human cells. Additionally, battery-charging issues have occasionally caused e-cigarettes to explode, causing fires.

The Upside

So are there any benefits to e-cigarettes? “There’s no question that if you could snap your fingers and get every tobacco smoker converted to e-cigarettes alone, that would be better than what we have today,” says Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control and Education at the University of California, San Francisco. E-cigarettes deliver far less of many, but not all, of the known carcinogens found in tobacco cigarettes.


The problem is that in approximately 80 percent of users, e-cigarettes are combined with conventional cigarettes. “E-cigarettes are either added to an existing smoking habit or their use becomes a path to smoking,” says Glantz. Dual use keeps the health risks of emphysema, heart disease and cancer—diseases which kill a majority of smokers—almost as high as conventional smoking alone. “We also know that inhaled ultrafine particles—like those of e-cigarette vapor—increase the risk of heart attack,” says Glantz. Because of these concerns, some state and local governments are beginning to limit e-cigarette use to the spaces now designated for conventional smoking.

Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist who sees musicians, singers, actors and dancers in his New York City medical practice, concedes that smoking has always been complicated where dancers are concerned: “Nicotine is an appetite suppressant and provides a small energy boost.” But ultimately, any form of cigarette is damaging to your health. “Everything we do as performers is based on the breath,” Horovitz says. “If you’re addicted to nicotine, get the skin patch. It’s the method of delivery least likely to harm your lungs and heart.”

He admits that many of his dancer patients relish the deep inhale that comes with smoking after a performance. His advice? “Just breathe. You don’t need to smoke to do that!”

Don’t Worry About Your Weight

Cigarettes may seem like a quick slim-down strategy, but there are healthier ways to keep your weight in check. Here are three quirky new tricks researchers have found.

Scientists at Brigham Young University found that women who woke up within the same 30 minutes each morning had 24.7 percent body fat versus 30.6 percent among those with the greatest variability in their sleep schedule.

Instead of reaching for heavy comfort foods, warm up with a bowl of broth-based soup, which has been shown to cut overall calorie consumption at meals.

A recent study found that we eat less when our food is served on red dishware, possibly because we associate the color with signals to stop.

Trying to Quit?

Take advantage of new counseling resources and social support systems:

• Instant-message a National Cancer Institute counselor for quitting advice at

• Call 800-QUIT-NOW to speak with a trained smoking-cessation coach.

• Sign up for an online program such as, or the American Lung Association’s