An Interview with Paul Bergen on Electronic Cigarette Safety

A Researcher Discusses Electronic Cigarettes

The Mini-Cigarette - a electronic cigarette that can be used as an aid for quitting smoking.


An interview on various aspects of the Electronic Cigarette with Paul Bergen of the Tobacco Harm Reduction project. Also be sure to check out the Tobacco Harm Reduction Project's Electronic Cigarette Faq section.

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How harmful is the E-cigarette, and how true are reports such as Put Down that E-Cigarette which claim that e-cigarettes could be poisenous?

That particular posting is somewhat misleading. The main concern WHO had regarding electronic cigarettes were that some distributors were inappropriately saying that WHO had endorsed them. Apart from that, like much of the other opposition to ecigarettes, WHO are also being inappropriate in concentrating not on whether these devices will actually get people to quit nicotine rather than whether they will reduce the harm associated with tobacco use.

The author of the posting, Summer Johnson, who specialises in bioethics, might be more cautious in her academic arena but she has previously posted that “Public health ethics says that almost any measures are okay to get smokers addicted to nicotine to kick the habit to stop inflicting harm on themselves and others.” ( It is bad enough when activists say any measures against smokers are reasonable (in some places you can bar them from fostering children, holding jobs, or even their spouses being denied jobs) but it is much worse when professed ethicists say it.

"Though there is not perfect certainty on how safe electronic cigarettes are, we are pretty certain that they are a lot safer than cigarettes are."

However, this hardly needs responding since the comments on the blog show that most people can easily see that her piece was written without really learning anything about the topic. Her main error, common to most anti-tobacco activists, is that when you are discussing a harm reduction alternative what matters is not how absolutely safe a product is but whether it is safer than the comparison. Though there is not perfect certainty on how safe electronic cigarettes are, we are pretty certain that they are a lot safer than cigarettes are. (Oddly enough given Johnson’s statement about any measures to get smokers to quit being good, why is she not supportive of electronic cigarettes?)

How does the electronic cigarette compare to real cigarettes?

Though not many good studies of electronic cigarettes exist yet, but of those that do, no negative health effects have been found. The devices are quite simple so there is not much to worry about. They are for the most part, traditional cigarettes with all the known dangers removed. And this is why we are quite certain they are much safer than smoking. The major danger in smoking has always been tobacco smoke, and that has now been removed.

What is left is a tube of some sort you put in your mouth (no danger unless you poke it in your eye or swallow it), nicotine (which is no more dangerous than caffeine unless you are a fetus), a flavouring component, and propylene glycol (which though toxic if you drink a lot of it is quite harmless if you inhale it). The possible harm is if something slips in with the nicotine and flavouring compounds.

We also now have a few years of population use and though you really need decades of use to be certain, at least we know nothing major and short term has appeared. The one reasonable concern is that there is little regulation on the manufacture of these devices and some might inadvertently harbor some potentially toxic contaminant (though it would have to be remarkably robust to approach the toxicity of cigarette smoke).

Can it stop people smoking?

Personally I have seen it work, and not. And though

"I tried this and found it utterly satisfying to the point where I could not imagine real smoking any longer..."

I haven’t smoked tobacco in some time, I tried this and found it utterly satisfying to the point where I could not imagine real smoking any longer. And this was for a non nicotine version. For some people, smoking is not about the nicotine but about the pleasures of the physical act of smoking and for those, this is a godsend.

What is promising about this is that it is so similar to smoking that people immediately imagine it as supplanting their other habit. Most other alternatives require some getting used to, and rather than optimism, many start thinking about how it doesn’t do certain things. Whether most people will switch over completely is beside the point. Saving just a few lives is worth promoting a safer alternative. I suspect that e-cigarettes will actually end up having a major impact on smoking levels but as I said, though great, that is not required to promote this. Smoking is bad for you but it is still a choice; our job is not to make people quit smoking but to make safer choices so attractive or effective that they want to make the choice to move away from cigarettes.

I suspect that in time, people will investigate the quitting potential of ecigarettes but like all these studies, you need a few years to really know if it works. In the meanwhile, anytime someone is smoking an ecigarette they are not smoking something else which is a good thing.

"There is a pressing need for better alternatives... the best and most effective alternatives in the market right now appears to be smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes"

If the usual quit smoking alternatives such as the gum and the patch were judged on how successful they were in long term quit rates, many people might argue that they should be taken off the market. There is a pressing need for better alternatives for smokers and to the distress of the anti-tobacco crowd the best and most effective alternatives in the market right now appears to be smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes. The former we have plenty of data that shows it is safer and that people can switch, and the latter less data but positive indications that it might end up as safe and maybe even more effective since it mimics smoking so well.

What, in your opinion, is the reason behind the suppression of information and testimonials by the Government?

"...some people ... are vehemently anti-smoking and will fight any product that makes smoking more acceptable."

Some cynics say that the government worries about losing tobacco tax revenues if everyone switched over to this product. I might be naive but I do not think that is their motive (though since tobacco taxes have become prominent in many budgets it should be). At this time, I think it comes from two sources 1. simply that it is a product that confuses them because it does not fit neatly into a category (like for instance the Segway is illegal still in many places because no one quite knows where to put it; not that there is a motor industry conspiracy against it) and 2. some people in those positions are vehemently anti-smoking and will fight any product that makes smoking more acceptable.

As it is, the government can place barriers on the product, but information suppression is bound to fail given the internet. News sources are covering this well, and for the most part accurately and positively, so short of shutting down the presses, and the net itself, the government can interdict the product at borders, not allow the sale in stores etc but the information is still fairly free. (Not to say some haven’t tried; they do have the power to apply restrictions on commercial sites).

Can you give us any further examples of the sale of/information about e-cigarettes being suppressed?

As far as restricting the sales of e-cigarettes, right now the most famous example is Australia which has banned the sales on or off line of these products. A few countries like Finland allow the sales on line or for personal use but not for sale in stores. Others only allow the sale of ecigarettes as medical devices, and yet others allow the sale but do not allow any advertising of the product. What we might see is a “Swedish” example emerging, that is a country that does not stand in the way of this alternative, and where the alternative becomes as available and more popular that cigarettes, and then over time a decrease in all the smoking related conditions. If it is anything like the smokeless tobacco case, that won’t ensure any spread of the solution but at least it would furnish good evidence that this could work.

What misinformation has been spread about e-cigarettes?

There is not a lot of misinformation about e-cigarettes in comparison to smokeless tobacco. The one fear some mention is about unknown contaminants. This is probably partly based on the Chinese origins of the product. The only major source of this fear appears to be WHO who did not actually say it was true but said that there were no studies to rule out the possibility. This is not entirely unreasonable. Though the potential is not strong enough to warn smokers away from this product, given the many producers and lack of regulatory oversight, there is little real quality control in the production of this product. Of course, once the WHO said that, journalists who thrive on spreading fears, turned this into various headlines about poisonous products. However, there is more skepticism about this reporting than most fear reporting such as the various food scares.

What damage is being caused by the suppression of e-cigarettes?

I don’t think the “suppression of information” is that effective or influential but rather the lack of the product being commonly available. We need these products to be sold where other tobacco products are sold and to be seen on the streets and in the bars and on planes and anywhere smokers might notice them, and then consider switching.

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