Electronic cigarettes—or e-cigarettes—are battery-operated devices that have cartridges with liquid chemicals in them. Heat from a battery-powered atomizer turns the chemicals into a vapour the user inhales (called vaping). E-cigarettes look like regular cigarettes. Some electronic smoking products look like cigars and pipes. E-cigarettes can be reusable or disposable. Reusable e-cigarettes have cartridges with liquid in them that can either be replaced, or re-filled with e-liquid.
The most common contents are a mix of water and propylene glycol. Many e-cigarettes also have chemicals added to give the vapour a flavour. Testing has found that most e-liquids have nicotine in them, even though they may be sold as “nicotine-free”.
Given that e-cigarettes don’t produce tar or carbon monoxide, two of the main toxins found in cigarette smoke, they’re likely safer than smoking a regular cigarette—but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. If you don’t smoke, using e-cigarettes can still harm your health.
Propylene glycol, one of the main ingredients in e-liquid, is a food preservative. We don’t know yet if vaporized propylene glycol or the other chemicals in the cartridges are safe to inhale. They may irritate the lungs and airways over time. We also don’t know if the chemicals added to give flavour are safe. We do know that heating vaping liquids creates other chemicals that may have harmful health effects.
Because chemicals in the cartridges vary, it’s hard to know what e-cigarette users and people nearby are breathing in. There are also risks using e-cigarettes in pregnancy, as we do know that the chemicals affect how a baby’s brain develops. This remains to be true throughout childhood. This means that children and teens are especially at risk when exposed to these products.
While Health Canada advises that switching from smoking to vaping products will reduce the harmful chemicals you’re exposed to, they don’t say that vaping is safe. They also warn people that e-cigarettes cause nicotine poisoning and addiction. Remember to keep the products away from children to prevent nicotine poisoning.
Most places treat e-cigarettes the same as tobacco cigarettes, limiting their use to designated smoking areas. Smoking e-cigarettes indoors or in vehicles where others may be exposed to vapour, including children and pregnant women, isn’t recommended because of the health concerns around being exposed to second-hand smoke.
You can’t use e-cigarettes on Alberta Health Services (AHS) property. AHS property means all grounds, facilities, work vehicles, and personal vehicles on AHS grounds.
Early studies show that using e-cigarettes may help some people quit smoking, but more research has to be done. We do know that the health risks are lower only when the person completely switches from smoking cigarettes to vaping. People who use e-cigarettes to quit are more successful when they do it with the support of stop smoking services like AlbertaQuits. Health Canada has approved stop-smoking medicine, including over-the-counter nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, and the inhaler. There’s also prescription medicine. These products have been proven to be safe and to help people who use tobacco reduce or quit using.
Teens and young adults are especially at risk of becoming addicted and to the effects of nicotine. This is because their brains are still developing. Nicotine changes how the brain works. This is why so many teens and young adults try e-cigarettes. In 2017, 1 out of every 4 teens aged 15 to 19, and 3 out of every 10 young adults aged 20 to 24 said they had tried an e-cigarette. Advertisers know that marketing e-cigarettes makes teens and young adults more likely to want to try them. That’s also why the companies that make e-liquid add flavours.