In Brief

  • Electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes, e-cigs) are battery-powered devices that deliver vaporized nicotine and other substances such as flavorings to users without smoke or combustion. They are commonly marketed as healthier alternatives to smoking and as smoking-cessation tools.

  • A common misperception is that e-cigarettes only release water vapor. In reality, these devices release nicotine and other chemicals in a vapor form that can expose both the user and those in the immediate vicinity to the contaminants. While the health risks of using e-cigarettes are far lower than smoking regular cigarettes, many toxic compounds are still present.

  • The rapid increase in e-cigarette use has generated concern for indoor air quality because data are still limited on potential exposures and human health risks for users and others through second- and third hand exposure.

The surge in use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes or e-cigs) has raised many questions for OSH professionals as to whether use of such products should be allowed in the workplace. After all, if these are smoking-cessation devices, should we not encourage employees to quit smoking through use of these devices? What is the harm? Is it not just water vapor? E-cigarettes were originally designed in 1963 by Herbert Gilbert and patented in 1965 as a smokeless nontobacco cigarette intended to provide a harmless means of smoking (U.S. Patent No. 3,200,819 A, 1965). Researchers estimated some 460 different brands and more than 7,700 unique flavors were on the market as of January 2014 (Zhu, Sun, Bonnevie, et al., 2014), and the numbers have likely increased since. U.S. e-cigarette sales were estimated at $2.2 billion in 2014 (Rigotti, 2015) with an expected annual growth of more than 50% for the foreseeable future (Mickle, 2015).

While configurations of these devices have evolved through many generations, the typical components include a fluid-filled reservoir, which contains the liquid e-fluid or e-juice to be vaporized, an atomizer (heating coil) to vaporize the liquid and a battery (typically lithium) to power the atomizer. First-generation e-cigarettes resemble traditional cigarettes; second-generation devices have a distinct reservoir tank and larger battery; third-generation e-cigarettes are fully modifiable by the user, often to increase vaping power, output and battery life (Floyd, Aryal, Wang, et al., 2017). The intent is for users to inhale nicotine or flavored vapors without the cancer risks associated with traditional tobacco cigarette use because the devices have no combustion source or tobacco, which forms cancer-causing by-products when burned, (Maron, 2014).

This content is only available via PDF.
You can access this article if you purchase or spend a download.