Created initially in 2003 by a Chinese pharmacist, Hon Lik and later introduced in to American markets in 2007, e-cigarettes have exploded in popularity as a new "alternative" to traditional tobacco products. Many e-cigarette manufacturers boast that their products are both safer and more health-conscious than traditional cigarettes, while evidence to the contrary continues to pile up daily. The perception of smoking cigarettes has changed over the last several decades, however, a new market has emerged with the popularity of "vaping"; the youth market. The big tobacco companies have begun their assault on the youth of our country and all over the world, by creating a product that appears to be more technologically advanced and far less taboo than a rolled cigarette that produces a pungent odor. E-cigarette companies have manufactured flavors and packaging that are far more enticing to adolescents, who lose the perception that tobacco is a harmful additive to their body. E-cigarettes (vapes) pose nearly the same health risks as traditional cigarettes with and added danger, the effects of their components on the environment around us. From the production of the addictive substance nicotine, to the disposal of the vapes heating source (the lithium ion battery), the environment is being taxed with every new vape being put on the market. Between the inherent health risks of smoking tobacco and the environmental impact caused by the manufacturing of e-cigarettes, this hot commodity is poised to sue a major issue for our future generations.
E-cigarettes can go by many names; electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), e-cigs, vapes, mods and tanks. Although they have many names, all these devices were designed to do the same thing, be an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes. The first e-cigs were produced by a Chinese pharmacist, who was looking to offer an alternative to smoking traditional cigarettes for the nearly 350 million smokers in the country. While still containing the addictive chemical nicotine, e-cigs were thought to be safer because they did not require combustion of any kind and lacked the known chemicals found in many cigarette brands. The e-cigs quickly gained popularity and eventually made their way stateside in about 2007 (Nguyen, Aamodt 2013). The first-generation e-cigarettes produced were made to look almost identical to that of an actual cigarette. They had the same coloring and shape as a traditional cigarette. The problem with the first generation, was that they were disposable and could not be recharged or refilled. The second generation of e-cigs came out looking more like a sophisticated pen or battery pack with a mouthpiece. The second-generation e-cigs included a rechargeable battery component and a much larger design. These second-gen e-cigs were refillable and allowed the user to swap out different flavors of “juices” to suit the smokers’ interests. The second-generation gained immense popularity and gave way for the third-generation e-cigs to become more popular than ever before. The third-generation e-cigs were made to be the largest yet and were able to be modified to have different heat settings, hence the name “mods”. Many more popular designs were created to look even more sleek and inconspicuous to the untrained eye. Many users were interested in a more understated design, that would allow them to smoke in more settings while undetected. The e-cigs produced today contain a liquid solution that is heated by in internal coil or disc to produce a smoke similar to that of an actual cigarette. Although many refer to using e-cigarettes as “vaping”, the device does not produce a vapor at all. Instead of a vapor, the e-cig produces an aerosol which contains chemical particles produced by the liquid solution and the device itself (Truth Initiative 2018). The typical liquid cartridge of an e-cigarette contains the nicotine equivalent of a pack of traditional cigarettes. Each company is different and there is a discrepancy about just how many “puffs” different cartridges contain. Unlike the varying flavors and “puff count” of the e-cigarette cartridges, all e-cigs contain lithium batteries to supply the heating source for their liquid. Lithium-ion batteries are found in almost every electronic device as a main power source alternative to fossil fuels or disposable batteries. Billions of dollars’ worth of these nicotine enhanced, lithium batteries are making their way to the hands of consumers globally (Nguyen, Aamodt 2013). The questions about safety to the users both immediately and from their surrounding environment must be called in to question. Whether it be the harmful chemicals being put in to the liquid solutions or the elements being drawn out of the earth to manufacture e-cigarettes, a long look needs to be taken at the e-cigarette industry to adjust to the changing morals of the billion-dollar industry.
The first lens I’d like to take a look at the e-cigarette industry with, is from a perspective on the risks and hazards of the product. Nicotine is an inherently addictive chemical and cigarettes contain known carcinogens, which are cancer causing molecules. Why is it that so many view traditional cigarettes as harmful, but fail to recognize e-cigs as the same danger? I believe that a lot comes from the packaging of the nicotine. The liquid juices appear clear or colored and give off an aroma that is far less abrasive than that of traditional cigarettes or menthols. In actuality, e-cigarette juices contain just as many chemicals as traditional cigarettes, although they lack many of the solid particles ingested when smoking traditional cigarettes. Researchers have found that there are 60+ chemical compounds found in typical e-liquids, with even more being produced once they are heated up into the aerosol smoke (Truth Initiative 2018). The product is so new that there are little studies done on the added chemicals in the e-liquids, but one thing that is for sure, is the abundance of nicotine in the cartridges. Nicotine addictions are sweeping through the youth at an alarming rate. So many more youth are using e-cigarettes than ever before. In a study done by the National Youth Tobacco Survey, the rate of e-cigarette use among high school students has risen 10% from 2011-2017, and use among middle school students has jumped from just .6% to 3.3% over that same period. If e-cigarettes weren’t enough on their own, a report formed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that there is “substantial evidence that e-cigarette use increases risk of ever using combustible tobacco cigarettes among youth and young adults” (Truth Initiative 2018). The study showed that among young adults in 2015, 40% of those who used an e-cigarette device also smoked cigarettes. To describe e-cigarettes, it is safe to use the term “gate-way drug”, because it opens the door for nicotine addiction and continuous use of other tobacco products that are potentially more harmful. With e-cigs flying off the shelves at alarming rates to users who may not understand how harmful the components are, there must be a question raised about how we dispose of them. I would argue that the majority of youth do not know the proper disposal techniques for lithium batteries or chemical-laden cartridges. E-cigarettes create a sort of double-trouble effect, meaning they deliver addictive nicotine immediately and follow it up by polluting the planet upon disposal of the device.
The second lens that I’d like to look at e-cigarettes from, is the environmental impact of production and disposal of the devices. The use of lithium-ion batteries for nearly all third-gen e-cigarette products, has added to the global desire for lithium over the last couple decades. The production of lithium is a process that destroys the earth at the source and pollutes neighboring water-ways and ecosystems. Lithium is produced by drilling down hundreds of feet to extract mineral-rich brine from salt flats all over the world. Once the brine is too the surface, it is placed in to pools with other chemicals such as manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts, where they are left to evaporate for 12-18 months. The mixture is filtered down until there is enough lithium carbonate to be extracted and the ions to be added to make batteries (Katwala 2018). At the beginning, lithium is not the most harmful chemical used in the process to the environment. Extractive chemicals such as hydrochloric acid leaking in to nearby waterways has created toxic environments for fish and livestock in countries such as Tibet and Bolivia. The danger from lithium comes from its’ refined form of lithium-ion, which is considered a hazardous material in many countries such as the United States. When lithium-ion batteries are disposed of, many have not been completely de-charged of energy and still contain some of the explosive and corrosive chemicals that pollute our soil. Nickel is often used in these lithium batteries and is one of the more toxic chemicals that can be put back in to the earth when batteries are thrown in to landfills or make their way in to the natural environment. The systems used for creating lithium-ion batteries are the most harmful to the environment and put mining communities at risk for polluting waterways and food sources. The other part of the e-cigarette that can cause environmental harm, are the cartridges themselves. As we have already learned, e-cig cartridges contain 60+ different kinds of chemicals in their plastic containers. Again, one of the most harmful ingredients found in the cartridges is copper, which one research study found is 6.1 times higher per puff than reported previously for conventional cigarette smoke (Lerner, Sundar, Watson, Elder, Jones, Done, Kurtzman, Ossip, Robinson, McIntosh, Rahman 2015). The study also found that residual levels in cartridges showed significant levels of oxidants and free radicals in their aerosols. Oxidants are chemicals that are reactive to oxygen and continue to alter structures of other organic materials. Free radicals are molecules that are extremely unstable and highly reactive with other chemical structures. Free radicals can often damage proteins, DNA and cell membranes by the process of oxidation. Together, these agents are corrosive and damaging to the environment. When cartridges are discarded inappropriately, these molecules can cause a world of hurt for wherever they land. I know that I see cartridges and refill bottles thrown on the ground and disposed of in to bushes around our own community. These discarded items contain major chemicals that endanger the local wildlife, plant life and water systems. Improper disposal of e-cigarette components is a dangerous and extremely harmful process for our environment. From beginning to end, the production and disposal of e-cigs tears the earth apart and breaks it down nearly simultaneously.
E-cigarettes are a growing trend that produces harm for both the user and those around them. Not only is the smoking of e-cigs harmful to you and everyone around you, but your purchase of such products endangers communities all over the world. Many of these communities tasked with producing the chemicals that go in to e-cigarettes, are doing so out of necessity. They are doing so to provide jobs for few, at the expense of many. Large companies take over masses of land in South America and Africa to extract the chemicals necessary to produce e-cigs, all the while damaging the surrounding ecosystems. They may provide jobs for some, but they are slowly killing those closest to production and killing the consumers even faster. There is some glimmer of hope as awareness about the dangers of e-cigarettes continues to be on the rise. In one study done on 578 adolescents aged 14-20, 61% had negative overall opinions toward adolescent e-cigarette users (McKelvey, Popova, Pepper, Brewer, Halpern-Felsher 2018). The perspective of e-cigarette use is slowly shifting towards the negative and there is hope in the youth of our nation at least. We must continue to educate on the dangers of nicotine addiction, chemical ingestion and the effects the production of e-cigs has on the environment. Without knowledge, there is no way to build a stigma around the topic of e-cigs. I believe that a stigma is necessary to combat the big tobacco companies attempts to lure in the youth. The industry has adapted and so too does the education level. Letting people know the whole story is critical to the overall success of a movement.