A laboratory study presented last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology provides important new evidence that electronic cigarettes have the potential to deliver nicotine with a high degree of relative safety. Specifically, the study reports that a high-technology brand of electronic cigarette (VUSE) delivers an aerosol that has no detectable carcinogens or metals - compounds that were of concern in a number of other e-cigarette brands.
(See: Theophilus EH, et al. VUSE electronic cigarette aerosol characterization (poster). Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Toxicology, March 24-27, 2014.)
In the study, researchers from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and the Eurofins-Lancaster Laboratories in Winston-Salem examined the constituents in the aerosol produced by VUSE electronic cigarettes. Of particular concern were a number of carcinogens, metals, and volatile compounds found in previous studies of different electronic cigarette brands. The study chromatigraphically profiled the chemical constituents of VUSE aerosol.
Among the compounds specifically examined were the following:
Volatile Organic Compounds
The study reported that none of the above chemicals were detected: all were below the limit of detection or limit of quantification of the laboratory methods used. In contrast, most of these compounds were detected in tobacco cigarettes.
The study concluded that the composition of VUSE aerosol is much less complex than that of tobacco smoke, that the main compounds detected are those predicted to be present (i.e., those present in the e-liquid), and that none of the toxicants of specific concern were detectable in the electronic cigarette aerosol.
The Rest of the Story
This research is important because it suggests that it is technologically possible to produce an electronic cigarette that delivers nicotine with an excipient, but essentially without any other toxic or carcinogenic chemicals. How R.J. Reynolds is able to avoid the hydrolysis products of propylene glycol is not clear. Perhaps it is related to the quality of the heating mechanism and/or the temperature regulation. The avoidance of metal contamination may have to do simply with the quality of the manufacturing process. At any rate, this is an important study because it suggests the great promise of the electronic cigarette as perhaps the most important smoking cessation product of the future.
Of course, this is only a study of one brand of electronic cigarette. But it shows what is technologically possible. I believe that one of the FDA's priorities in regulating these products should be to discover and articulate the specific manufacturing processes or features that allow nicotine to be delivered in as clean a fashion as VUSE appears to deliver it. Quality assurance and quality control standards should be the centerpiece, I believe, of the FDA's regulation of electronic cigarettes, rather than strict regulation of these devices in a manner similar to that of tobacco cigarettes.
While we still don't know the effects of long-term inhalation of propylene glycol, this study suggests that outside of the nicotine, VUSE poses minimal health risks. Obviously, this research helps to confirm that VUSE is much safer than tobacco cigarettes.
It is also important to note that this study also suggests that "secondhand" exposure to VUSE e-cigarettes is unlikely to pose any substantial health risks.
This research should cause tobacco control practitioners to embrace electronic cigarettes as a promising device that could permanently alter the nature of the combustible tobacco product space, potentially saving more lives than any previous smoking cessation product. We have a long way to go, but embracing the promise of these products and committing to use our public resources and policies to maximize the benefits while minimizing the risks of these products is the first step.