Helpful or harmful? 5 On Your Side Investigators put E-cigarettes to the test

CLEVELAND - Suddenly, e-cigarettes seem to be everywhere. But so far, there is little regulation at the local, state or federal levels and little research has been done on the devices.

Ohio House Bill 144, which bans minors from buying e-cigarettes, passed both legislative houses. A spokesperson for Ohio Governor John Kasich said the governor plans to sign the measure into law.

Many users say e-cigarettes are a better choice than tobacco cigarettes.    

Brent Brockman started smoking tobacco cigarettes in college and said e-cigarettes helped him kick the habit.

“I don't feel the same way as when I was smoking cigarettes. I find that I don't get sick as often,” he said.

“In my opinion, I believe that it’s healthier than a traditional cigarette,” he said.

Brockman, his wife and two friends opened Euphoria Vapor, an e-cigarette store, in Middleburg Heights in January.

“It kind of feels like you are on the leading edge of something,” he said.

"It doesn't smell bad," said Christine Gentry. "It's much cheaper. No yellow teeth."

Gentry is the chief operating officer of Vapure, a San Diego-based e-cigarette company with seven stores.

She said they do not sell e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device, though she said many customers turn to the product to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes.

"If they ask us, we tell them there are over 4,000 chemicals in a cigarette and they are hundreds of dollars a month," Gentry said. "In electronic cigarettes, there are four ingredients. We make it ourselves and the price is a fraction of the cost."

She said those ingredients are pharmaceutical-grade nicotine like you find in the patch, vegetable glycerin, propylene glycol and flavorings for the refill liquid made by food-grade companies. 

Scientists have only done studies on the vapor and its effects on users, as well as people who are around secondhand vapor.

Glantz gave an overview on how e-cigarettes work.

"The way an e-cigarette works is it heats up a mixture of nicotine, propylene glycol and other chemicals and that heated mixture becomes an aerosol which is inhaled deeply into your lungs to deliver the addictive drug nicotine," she said.

Critics say e-cigarettes do not help people quit smoking because users reportedly use e-cigarettes and cigarettes at the same time.

"Most of the people, about 80 percent of people who use e-cigarettes, keep smoking regular cigarettes," said Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California.

Critics also say e-cigarettes are marketed towards children.

"It is very much like old-fashioned cigarette marketing, with the addition of all these high tech and kiddie things, like flavors," said Glantz.

E-cigarette users can choose from hundreds of different flavored liquids, including strawberry mango freeze, melon and snickerdoodle.

Glantz also said smoking for kids is at an all-time high. He points to a Center for Disease Control Study that says cigarette use has doubled among kids in middle and high school.

READ: CDC report on Electronic Cigarette Use Among Middle and High School Students — United States, 2011–2012

Gentry said her business does not market to kids and does not sell to underage customers.

"We aren't posting billboards in front of elementary schools, but at the same time, if we are marketing to children, then so is cherry vodka or vanilla rum," Gentry said.

Brockman said he does not sell to minors even though, for the time being, it is legal in Ohio.

Advertising

The government banned television and radio ads for cigarettes in 1970. Ads for smokeless tobacco were banned in 1986.

But big tobacco is back on air, now pushing electronic cigarettes.

Actor Stephen Dorf did a series of ads for Blu, an e-cigarette brand owned by the tobacco company Lorillard, and Reynolds America is running a commercial in Colorado for their e-cigarette, Vuse.

"They are using celebrities. They are using sex. They are using glamour," Glantz said.

He also said research shows the e-cigarette ads are triggering relapses in people who have long quit smoking.

The e-cigarette industry maintains its product can only help smokers, not hurt them.

Testing for answers

Glantz believes the secondhand vapor of e-cigarettes could be harmful, too.

"If you are around somebody who is using e-cigarettes, you are breathing in ultra-fine particles and you are breathing in nicotine," he said. "You are breathing in volatile organic campaigns and metals that are in the vapor."

Gentry said it depends on the product and that the Vapure products undergo strict quality control tests.

"We have our own facility," she said. "We make all of the liquids, everything — we don't outsource the liquid from any other country. All the ingredients are from the U.S. and we make it ourselves."

5 On Your Side Investigators went to scientist Prue Talbot and her team at the University of California Riverside, who were among the first in the country to analyze e-cigarettes.

5 On Your Side Investigators tested two brands using the university's lab, which has equipment

such as a smoking machine and a scanning electronic microscope.

Results

The first test was done on the e-cigarette "Smoking Everywhere Platinum." It is made in China and available online. It is distributed out of Florida across the United States.

The liquid that is heated and turns into a vapor is put inside of a centrifuge and spun. What resulted was a small metal pellet.

"There is quite a bit of tin. Most of this material is composed of tin," said Talbot. "There is also some oxygen, some copper and some nickel."

The electronic microscope revealed a possible source for the tin was the solder used to cover the wires inside of the e-cigarette.

"A lot of the solder seems to have come off. Some of it has spread and come off and melted on the side," said Talbot.

"I think the fact there is significant amount of tin in these pellets is important," she said. "This means the people using this product are going to be inhaling the tin."

While there are no studies on the long-term health effects of inhaling tin, the UC Riverside scientist still is concerned about the very small nanoparticles of tin in the sample.

"Nanoparticles in general can be toxic," said Talbot. "In the case of e-cigarettes, the nanoparticles would tend to go deeper into the respiratory system."

Glantz explained these particles are so small they go from lungs straight into the bloodstream and carry the toxic chemicals into various organs.

Team 10 tried to contact "Smoking Everywhere" in China where it is manufactured and its distributor in the United States, based in Plantation, Fla. Our phone calls were not returned.

Most e-cigarettes are made in China by different manufacturers with no U.S. government oversight.

Watch video from a Chinese manufacturing plant below (mobile users tap here).

"They smoke differently," said Talbot. "They seemed to be manufactured differently. There are many different styles. There are many different models. There is no such thing as a single e-cigarette."

For the second test, Talbot's team looked at the Mistic e-cigarette, a brand purchased at a local drug store.

In the "spin" test, no tin was found because there were no solder joints used in this brand.

What the cigarette machines found while puffing on the Mistic e-cigarettes were low concentrations of copper, calcium and potassium, but Talbot says more research is needed.

A spokesperson for Mistic was reviewing the research before the company would issue any comment.

Gentry said she would welcome the standards her company uses for the rest of the industry she works in.

"It's completely unregulated by the FDA right now. People are just selling it and making it," Gentry said. "It's unfortunate for the industry. Some people are making it right out of their garage, making it in office buildings. People are not really going the extra step. People aren't treating it like its food."

Potential legislation

We shared the results of our test with Ohio Senator Michael Skindell (D-Lakewood.)

"I did not know about the presence of tin in the vaporizers and I'm glad to find out,” he said.

Skindell said he plans to explore legislation to add e-cigarettes to the indoor smoking ban and regulate the chemicals used to make them.

"A lot of people say they smell nice. Something's creating that smell. What type of chemicals? Are they natural or are they chemicals? And if they're chemicals, are they harmful when you breathe them in,” he said.

The Feds weigh in

The Five On Your Side investigators asked the Food and Drug Administration about any future plans for possible regulation.

Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated products that turn nicotine, which is highly addictive, and/or other chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. The FDA regulates electronic cigarettes that are marketed for therapeutic purposes as drugs or devices. The FDA intends to propose a regulation that would extend the agency's 'tobacco product' authorities -- which currently only apply to cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco -- to other categories of tobacco products that meet the statutory definition of 'tobacco product.' Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products.

Even though FDA only currently regulates electronic cigarettes if they make a therapeutic claim, consumers may submit voluntary adverse event reports to the FDA for electronic cigarettes through the HHS Safety Reporting Portal .

 

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