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How does an e-cigarette work?

28 Oct 2014  | Rob Spiegel

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A brief history

Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik is credited with the invention of the e-cigarette. In 2003, he came up with the idea of using a piezoelectric ultrasound-emitting element to vaporise a pressurised jet of liquid containing nicotine diluted in a propylene glycol solution. This design produces a smoke-like vapour that can be inhaled and provides a vehicle for nicotine delivery into the bloodstream via the lungs. He also proposed using propylene glycol to dilute nicotine and came up with the idea of placing the vaporiser in a disposable plastic cartridge that serves as a liquid reservoir and mouthpiece.

Are e-cigarettes safe?

The benefits and risks of e-cigarettes remain uncertain. Not surprisingly, evidence suggests e-cigarettes may be safer than smoking tobacco products. They may be as safe as other nicotine replacement products, but there is not sufficient data to draw conclusions. E-cigarettes may carry a risk of addiction for those who do not already smoke, but there is no evidence of widespread use among those who have never smoked.

Emissions from e-cigarettes contain flavours, aroma transporters, glycerol, propylene glycol, nicotine, carcinogens, heavy metals, ultrafine particles and other chemicals. The levels of contaminants so far have not prompted health concerns. E-cigarette aerosol has fewer toxicants than cigarette smoke. They are likely to be less harmful to users and bystanders. Complaints from some e-cigarette users have included throat and mouth inflammation, vomiting, nausea and coughing.

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