What are Electronic Cigarettes?

By now, you’ve no doubt heard about electronic cigarettes. But what exactly are they? Basically, they’re devices which let the user simulate the act of smoking a “real” cigarette, complete with the sensation of inhaling. When you do inhale on a e-cigarette, though, you’re not taking in real smoke, you’re inhaling a vapor that’s been atomized by the ecig. And the exhale isn’t smoke either, it’s just an odorless vapor that won’t bother anyone else, but still looks like real smoke.

The concept of an electronic cigarette has been around for decades, but the actual invention is credited to a Chinese pharmacist about ten years ago. The device was first put on the market in 2004, and in recent years has been growing in popularity by leaps and bounds.

The way e-cigarettes work is relatively simple. An atomizer (contained in the battery which resembles the “body” of a cigarette) heats a liquid solution (contained in the cartridge which resembles the “filter”), creating the vapor that you inhale and exhale. That solution is made of either propylene glycol or vegetable glycerine (substances approved by the FDA for a variety of purposes), water, flavoring and nicotine – no other harmful additives. The vapor feels like smoke when you take it in, and looks like smoke when you exhale, but there’s no carbon monoxide, tar or poisonous chemicals as in tobacco smoke. The end result is that you look like and feel like you’re smoking, just without the actual smoke.

The most popular design of an e-cig is a simple one: there are two pieces, the battery (which also contains the atomizer that heats the liquid and the LED that “glows” when you inhale) and the cartridge (pre-filled, with the solution in it), and they screw together to make the e-cigarette. When the battery runs down, you just recharge it (either with a USB cord that attaches to a computer, an AC adapter that lets you connect to a wall outlet, or a car charger). When the cartridge runs out of solution, you just throw it away and attach a new one. The battery charge and cartridge life vary from brand to brand, but a rough estimate is that a battery charge and cartridge will last for a little longer than a pack of traditional cigarettes. Earlier versions of smokeless cigarettes came in three pieces; the middle piece contained the atomizer, and usually the cartridge required the user to fill it with liquid solution whenever necessary. Some “vapers” and hobbyists still prefer the three piece design because it can last longer between charges and liquid refills, because many more flavors of liquid are available when you “fill your own,” or just because they think it’s fun to use. One recent innovation from some manufacturers that blend the two approaches, are refillable cartridges for two-piece e-cigs, which lets you play with all the available flavors in an easier-to-use format.

If you’re thinking of trying an e-cigarette, the easiest way is by purchasing a starter kit. Depending on the brand, it will usually have five or ten cartridges in your choice of flavor, a couple of batteries, and an assortment of chargers. They may also have carrying cases or other accessories, with more variety available at a higher price. You can also purchase disposable electronic cigarettes, which usually last a little longer than the two-piece models (as long as “two packs” of tobacco cigarettes), and after they’re used up, you just throw them away. In the long run, that’s a lot more expensive, but it’s an inexpensive way to give e-cigs a try.