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Are E-Cigarettes Anything More Than A Theater Prop?

E-cigarettes continue to create a lot of media buzz and chatter among smokers and smoking cessation experts alike. Today, Professor Thomas Eissenberg of Virginia Commonwealth University published an important study demonstrating that E-cigarettes, despite claims on the packaging and advertising, deliver almost no nicotine to the user.

The study is published in the latest edition of the journal, Tobacco Control. Professor Eissenberg had 16 smokers abstain overnight, then come to the lab. on different days and (a) smoke two of their usual cigarettes (b) puff on two unlit cigarettes or (c) “smoke” 2 leading brands of E-cigarette using their “high nicotine” cartridge (16mg), each brand on a separate occasion. On each occasion he measured the blood nicotine levels before, during and up to 45 minutes after using the products.

As expected, the smokers started off with very low nicotine blood levels (around 2 ng/ml) and went up to around 17 and 20 ng/ml after smoking the usual cigarettes. However, when the smokers used 2 E-cigarettes their blood nicotine levels hardly budged, peaking at 3.5 ng/ml (i.e. not significantly different from before they used the E-cigarette or puffing on an unlit cigarette). Similarly, unlike smoking real cigarettes, the E-cigarettes did not affect heart rate and had a relatively small (but observable) effect of reducing craving for a smoke.

What this suggests is that regardless of how much nicotine is supposed to be contained in the E-cigarette cartridge, almost none of it is transferred via the vapor and absorbed in the human body. As I have previously suggested, the E-cigarettes appear to be a good idea, with intuitive appeal, but ultimately have the status of a neat theatre prop which mimics rather well the appearance of smoking.

Given that it delivers almost no nicotine, it follows that the E-cigarette is unlikely to be effective in reducing nicotine withdrawal symptoms and helping addicted smokers to quit in the long run. Although on initial use, the smoker will likely get some conditioned effects (like Pavlov’s dog salivating on hearing the bell), after repeated use it is likely the smoker will learn that that ‘something is missing”, and notice that it doesn’t really help with their withdrawal symptoms and cravings (like Pavlov’s dogs salivate less and less as the bell is rung and no food appears).

I’ve no doubt that some people will continue to feel that they are ‘getting something” from the E-cigarette and that it helps them nonetheless. And of course many would prefer a product that doesn’t give them any nicotine. However, the lack of nicotine delivery casts doubt on this product’s usefulness for smoking cessation, and also poses questions as to the accuracy of the claims of those who market the product.

The reference for the study is:

Eissenberg T. Electronic nicotine delivery devices: ineffective nicotine delivery and craving suppression after acute administration. Tobacco Control 2010: 19, 87-88

To access online, cut and paste this link:

This post, Are E-Cigarettes Anything More Than A Theater Prop?, was originally published on by Jonathan Foulds, Ph.D..

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3 Responses to “Are E-Cigarettes Anything More Than A Theater Prop?”

  1. Robert says:

    Some people may find it helps if they THINK they’re getting nicotine into their bodies, and it may help curb their cravings to put a “cigarette” into their mouth and go through the motion of smoking, especially if that has been a decades-old habit for them.

  2. Treece says:

    Interestingly enough, Dr. Eissenberg posted on an e-cigarette forum not long after his study was publicized that he tried an e-cigarette himself and tested positive for cotinine using a Nicalert strip (registered 5/6, with 6 being the highest level of detection).

    The problem with his study–and it’s a huge problem–is that he tested subjects who had never used an e-cigarette before. As any vaper can tell you, there’s a slight learning curve when using an e-cigarette. It doesn’t take long to learn the technique, but it certainly takes more than 10 puffs.

    As serious as that problem is, however, it doesn’t compare to the consequences of it, which is how many smokers he’s dissuaded from trying the one thing that may have saved their lives.

    The people in tobacco control seem to have lost all sight of their objective. Wasn’t it something to do with helping smokers?

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