In 1965, when Herbert Gilbert was granted the first patent on a smoke- and tobacco-free cigarette, he wrote that the product would “provide a safe and harmless means for and method of smoking.”
More than 60 years later, however, modern iterations of Gilbert’s invention have sparked debate in the public-health community. E-cigarettes, which have grown increasingly popular in the past five years, were designed as a tool to help people quit smoking—and by doing so they should drastically reduce rates of lung cancer and other diseases. But the question is, does that potential outweigh their possible risks to human health?
No easy answer
Traditional cigarettes work by simple combustion: when tobacco is lit, it combines with oxygen and creates an inhalable smoke. E-cigarettes, sold by brands including Juul, Blu and Vuse, heat a chemical-packed liquid that typically contains nicotine and often a flavoring agent, creating an aerosol. By delivering nicotine without tar and other nasty by-products of combustion, e-cigarettes purportedly give smokers a healthier alternative to cigarettes while still satisfying cravings.
While public-health officials in some places, like the U.K., are strongly in favor of e-cigarettes, the World Health Organization is more wary. In the U.S., Dr. Scott Gottlieb—commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the devices—says he believes e-cigarettes are good for public health, despite the unknowns. E-cigs are “not risk-free,” Gottlieb says, but the possibilities they hold for adult smokers trying to quit, like reduced rates of lung cancer and better overall respiratory health, are important.