Frequently Asked Questions

What are electronic cigarettes?

Well, one thing they definitely aren’t is cigarettes! Basically they are compact vapourisers with three main parts; a battery, a heating element and a liquid reservoir. There are many different types of each part, but every electronic cigarette has them. What the device does is use power from the battery to heat the element and vapourise a small amount of a flavoured liquid. This vapour can then be inhaled.

Do they contain tobacco?

No, they don’t. Some people might tell you that they do because the nicotine in the liquid is extracted from tobacco, but this is a fairly silly argument. It’s like saying that your cheese sandwich has beef in it because the cheese came from a cow.

Tobacco contains thousands of chemicals; nicotine is just one of them. E-cigarette liquid often contains nicotine, but it doesn’t contain tobacco.

But isn’t nicotine what makes tobacco dangerous?

Not at all. In fact nicotine, on its own, is fairly safe. Dr John Britton, the chairman of the tobacco advisory group at the Royal College of Physicians, says it’s about equivalent to the caffeine in coffee. What makes cigarettes dangerous is the mixture of chemicals created when tobacco is burned. These include tar, carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. Electronic cigarette vapour doesn’t contain any of these toxins.

So are electronic cigarettes safe?

That depends what you mean by “safe.” The fact is that nothing is completely safe. Life is a matter of balancing risks against benefits. Using electronic cigarettes is less safe than not using them. Of course drinking coffee is less safe than not drinking coffee, and walking to the park is less safe than switching off all your electrical appliances and lying very still in bed wearing Kevlar body armour and a crash helmet.

So far nobody has died from using an electronic cigarette. It’s possible there could be long term health effects, and of course their use should be monitored to look out for any signs of this, but the risk is very low; people have been inhaling all the ingredients of the vapour for decades with no problems. Most of the vapour is a chemical called propylene glycol; this is often used as an air sanitiser in hospitals. It’s so safe it’s even used in asthma inhalers. Many doctors and scientists have said that the risk from electronic cigarettes is less than 1% of the risk from smoking.

How can you say they’re safe? You don’t know what’s in the liquid.

Actually we do. Most of the liquid is propylene glycol, glycerin or a mixture of the two. It may also contain distilled water to make it flow more easily. Most liquids contain nicotine. All of these are pharmaceutical grade. That means they’re pure enough to be used in medicine. The final ingredient is flavouring. At first food flavourings were used, but now specialist ones are available for e-liquid that are even safer.

People who want to ban e-cigarettes often claim that we don’t know what’s in the liquid, but this simply isn’t true. Of course it’s possible that some cheap liquids imported from China could be contaminated, but Trading Standards offices are supposed to check for that. In any case most users prefer to buy liquids made in the UK or Europe, which are guaranteed to be safe.

Unfortunately, if the MHRA proposal to make e-cigarettes a medicine is adopted it will become illegal to sell bottles of liquid. Users will have no choice but to order potentially contaminated Chinese liquid on the internet. Obviously this creates an unnecessary health risk that could be easily avoided.

Won’t the flavours tempt children to try them?

The evidence says no. A recent study carried out by Action on Smoking and Health shows that only 1% of non-smokers aged under 18 have tried an electronic cigarette even once or twice, and 0% are using them regularly or plan to use them in the future. The only young people who are using electronic cigarettes are those who already smoke. This is actually a good thing; because e-cigarettes taste much better than tobacco ones and are cheaper to use (although that will probably change if they are licensed as medicines) many young smokers who try them are likely to switch completely. Because e-cigarettes are less than 1% as dangerous as tobacco this will be a huge benefit to public health.