Just How Do e-Cigarettes Work?

In the last few years, many smokers have made a transition to e-cigarettes. These products provide a source of nicotine and a corresponding vapor for inhaling and exhaling, giving much of the look of a cigarette without any smoke for the user or those around him or her.

For smokers eager to reduce the social and health cost of their addiction, the products have proven very attractive. However, the average consumer has little idea of how a water vapor cigarette actually works.

The first e-cigarettes were developed in China and became very popular there very quickly. China is a large consumer of tobacco, so the opportunity to tap into that huge market was very attractive to the e-cigarette’s inventor. In time, the technology came to the United States, and the same reaction was found here.

Nicotine is produced in the leaves of tobacco. When those leaves are cured, shredded, and packed into smoking products, the nicotine goes with them. Burning the leaves releases nicotine and other products in the smoke, which is inhaled by the user. Inside the lungs, nicotine is absorbed into the bloodstream, creating a pleasant sensation for the smoker. It is nicotine alone that creates the physiological response in smokers; all the other chemicals being inhaled are unnecessary and exist simply because of the chemistry of the traditional delivery process.

E-cigarettes attempt to achieve this final goal–absorption into the bloodstream–without all the byproducts of smoking. A smoker inhales numerous other chemicals with each drag on a cigarette, cigar, or pipe, and it’s these chemicals that create most of the health problems associated with smoking.

E-cigarettes do not produce carbon monoxide, tar, or any of the other carcinogens and toxins that are found in cigarette smoke. This eliminates those particular hazards from the air around nicotine users and those around them, reducing the health risks to users as well as the impact of secondhand smoke.

The e-cigarette achieves this by bypassing combustion. The device is stocked with liquid nicotine, then uses a battery to heat the liquid. It releases nicotine vapors, which the user inhales. The vapor is actually propylene glycol, the same material used in theatrical fog machines. It helps provide the visual sensation of smoking, allowing the user to feel more like he or she is still smoking.

So the e-cigarette is a very different device from traditional cigarettes. It’s often worn on a chain around the user’s neck, but can also be carried in a case similar to combusting cigarettes. The device requires batteries and liquid nicotine for use, and the first “light-up” after a break can take a little longer as the nicotine must first get hot enough to create vapors.

Because e-cigarettes use batteries, typically lithium ion units, there is some risk of fire. The devices must be kept away from open flames. And like any form of battery, it should be disposed of properly or recycled when it’s no longer functional.

There remain a number of questions about e-cigarettes. Issues with the batteries rupturing, starting fires, or creating pollution could lead to adjustments in the vaporization process. The dangers of liquid nicotine may also lead to changes in the product’s design. But for now, a fairly simple process of heating, vaporization, and inhaling is the basic operation of the device.