Posted March 18, 2012 by Jack Keenan in About e-Cigarettes

About Tobacco Vaporizers and “Safer Cigarettes”

Tobacco Vaporizers and Safer Cigarettes
Tobacco Vaporizers and Safer Cigarettes

According to a 2001 PBS article, tobacco companies have been researching “safer cigarettes” since at least the 1950s. It’s interesting to note that the article doesn’t mention electronic cigarettes because they hadn’t been developed yet; this industry has come a long way in a very short time. Today, the current strategy for the development of “safer cigarettes” involves vaporizing the tobacco rather than burning it; this technique is used in the Eclipse cigarette by RJ Reynolds.

The Eclipse Cigarette

Inside Eclipse Cigarette

Inside the Eclipse cigarette

The book Tobacco: Science, Policy and Public Health describes the design of the Eclipse cigarette in detail. The Eclipse has an insulated tip with a carbon core that slowly burns down when you light it. The insulator ideally keeps the temperature of the carbon core high enough to turn the nicotine in the tobacco to vapor without burning it and creating smoke. Inside the Eclipse are two sections of different tobacco mixtures wrapped in a foil tube. The section closer to the tip contains tobacco impregnated with glycerol, more commonly known as vegetable glycerin. The glycerol acts as a solvent, drawing nicotine and flavor out of the tobacco. It also adds color and body to the vapor produced by the Eclipse cigarette, since water vapor on its own is thin and colorless. The next section of tobacco,further away from the heating element, is a higher-quality tobacco blend — minus the glycerol — that improves the flavor of the cigarette. Finally, the cigarette terminates in a filter that has been hollowed out to let the vapor through. Studies cited in the book reported that the Eclipse cigarette can reduce known carcinogens in tobacco by 85-95 percent.

However, the Eclipse has failed to catch on with most smokers. Why? Lack of promotion could certainly be one cause, but the main failures are with the product itself. In the mid-2000s, before electronic cigarettes were available, I switched to Eclipse cigarettes twice and ended up switching back to my preferred brand — Camel Turkish Royal — both times. Although I thought that the Eclipse tasted good in its own right, it’s very different from a cigarette and it still left me craving the real thing.

However, it gets worse; according to product trials conducted during the late ’90s, people puff on the Eclipse about 50 percent more than they would with a regular cigarette, taking in 30 percent more volume with each puff. This is in conflict with the instruction pamphlet included with Eclipse cigarette packs, which explicitly state that you need to wait between puffs to keep the carbon core at the tip from overheating and burning the tobacco. People who over-puff can end up creating smoke, and since the filter is hollow the Eclipse essentially becomes an unfiltered cigarette. In addition, a 1998 study conducted by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute suggests that the process of hollowing out the Eclipse filter leaves dangerous glass fibers that the user may inhale, so Eclipse users may in fact be exchanging one carcinogen for another.

Tobacco Vaporizers

Tobacco Vaporizer

Tobacco vaporizers that actually work tend to be far from portable.

With the safety of “safer cigarettes” in question, some smokers looking for a solution for harm reduction have switched to tobacco vaporizers instead. A tobacco vaporizer works on the same principle as the Eclipse cigarette; a hollow metal chamber heats the tobacco to the desired temperature so the nicotine is vaporized but no smoke is created. Because tobacco vaporizers are electronic, you can set the desired temperature without worrying that you’ll overheat the tobacco and burn it.

Unfortunately, tobacco vaporizers also have significant problems. The first is water vapor, which is thin and colorless. When you vaporize plain tobacco, you’ll feel very little sensation in your throat and lungs and almost nothing will come out of your mouth. To counter this, some people will raise the vaporizer’s temperature until a sensation similar to smoking is achieved. The problem is that at this point, the tobacco is most likely burning, making the vaporizer no better than an unfiltered cigarette.

The other major dilemma is size; you can have a portable tobacco vaporizer or a vaporizer that actually works, but you can’t have both. Good tobacco vaporizers are huge, and although they can operate on battery power, you’ll only get the equivalent of 1-2 cigarettes from a single battery charge. If you smoke at work or in your car, good luck, because there’s almost no way to use a vaporizer in these situations. While cigarette-shaped pocket vaporizers are also available, they don’t work. They lack electronic controls and contain butane lighters, which burn the tobacco rather than vaporizing it.

After you’ve finished vaporizing your tobacco, you’re in for an even bigger surprise: the cleanup. Inside the chamber of a vaporizer, you’ll find two metal mesh filters at the top and bottom. The top filter keeps tobacco from going into your mouth, and the bottom filter keeps it out of the battery compartment. You’ll need to clean and replace both filters frequently, but only after you’ve scraped the wet, sticky and most likely ashy tobacco remains out of the chamber. You’ll have to go through this process each time you use the vaporizer, which will most likely result in a switch back to cigarettes.

Electronic Cigarettes: Vaporizers Evolved

Electronic Cigarettes vs Tobacco Vaporizers

Electronic cigarettes vaporize nicotine-infused liquid rather than tobacco.

In my opinion, electronic cigarettes represent the culmination of the research into a “safer cigarette” that began in the 1950s. Electronic cigarettes work by vaporizing e-liquid, which contains flavor, nicotine extracted from tobacco and a carrier usually consisting of a combination of propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin. The concept is similar to that of the Eclipse cigarette, except that there isn’t any tobacco to burn.

The jury is still out on whether electronic cigarettes are actually safer than real cigarettes. Electronic cigarettes compete directly with Big Tobacco, so unless a tobacco company decides to enter the e-cigarette industry, they’ll never fund a study. The government, for its own reasons, is also highly unlikely to sponsor such research. This leaves us with universities, and the best information I’ve seen to date comes from a report released by the Boston University School of Public Health in 2010. According to the report, current information suggests that electronic cigarettes could be up to 1,000 times less carcinogenic than regular cigarettes and that “Few, if any, chemicals at levels detected in electronic cigarettes raise serious health concerns.” If this information is correct, using an electronic cigarette would pose risks similar to those of nicotine replacement products such as gum and patches, while still giving the user an experience that feels and tastes much like cigarette smoking.

Although I lack the information and expertise to make any health claims, I am a strong advocate of electronic cigarettes for people who want a smoking alternative that they can actually stick with. I began using electronic cigarettes in 2010 to stop smoking, and I believe that I look, feel and smell better as a result.

If you found this article through a search engine and are unfamiliar with electronic cigarettes, I suggest reading my electronic cigarette buyer’s guide to learn more. The electronic cigarette pictured above is the Envy NirVana Economy Pack, a product that I strongly recommend for beginners. If you visit the Envy website through my link and check out using the coupon code edripping, you’ll receive a 25% discount, bringing your total to just $14.96.