23 May Can E-Cigarettes Deliver As Much Nicotine as Cigarettes?
E-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes) are handheld devices that use battery power to produce a nicotine-containing vapor, which users can inhale into their lungs in the same manner as cigarette smoke. Proponents of these devices believe that their use can help break a reliance on tobacco-based cigarettes and promote the long-term goals of smoking cessation; however, many detractors believe that e-cigarettes themselves can become the focus of a nicotine addiction and introduce their own unique set of potential harms. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Addiction, researchers from Switzerland’s University of Geneva investigated the amount of nicotine that e-cigarettes can deliver to the body and compared this amount to the nicotine intake associated with tobacco-based cigarettes.
Because they deliver nicotine to the body, e-cigarettes are also sometimes known as electronic nicotine delivery systems, or ENDS. Basic components of these devices include a battery, a chamber or cartridge that contains nicotine suspended in some sort of liquid and a unit that turns the nicotine-containing liquid into an inhalable vapor. As of May 2014, e-cigarettes are not closely regulated in U.S. markets; this means that no one knows for sure how much nicotine any given e-cigarette brand contains, or which additional chemicals are contained in the liquid used for nicotine vaporization. However, the World Health Organization reports that most e-cigarette cartridges hold 6 mg to 24 mg of deliverable nicotine; in addition, some cartridges have a nicotine content that exceeds 100 mg. One common ingredient in the vaporization liquids found in e-cigarettes is propylene glycol, a lung-irritating substance also found in commercial antifreeze and polyester products.
Measuring Nicotine Levels
When a person smokes a cigarette or an e-cigarette, nicotine passes from the lungs to the bloodstream and travels to the brain, where it produces its addictive potential by altering the normal chemical levels in an area called the pleasure center. After triggering these mind-altering effects, the drug remains in the bloodstream for a few hours before it gets converted into a breakdown byproduct called cotinine. The body must work fairly hard to break down cotinine, and this substance can stay in the bloodstream for much longer than nicotine. Scientific researchers can take advantage of this fact and use a person’s blood cotinine levels to estimate how much nicotine he or she has recently consumed. Researchers can also use saliva samples to measure cotinine/nicotine levels.
How Much Nicotine Is Delivered?
In the study published in Addiction, the University of Geneva researchers used saliva samples from e-cigarette users to help determine how much nicotine these devices deliver. A total of 71 individuals took part in the study. Roughly nine out of 10 of these participants were former users of tobacco-based cigarettes who had used e-cigarettes every day for about one year. On average, these participants inhaled nicotine-containing vapor from an e-cigarette about 150 times a day. When the researchers measured the nicotine contained in the devices used by the study participants, they found that most of the liquids in use held about 16 mg/ml of the drug.
The researchers found that 62 of the e-cigarette users enrolled in the study had not used nicotine or a nicotine-based smoking cessation product for a five-day time period prior to testing. They compared the amount of cotinine in the saliva from these individuals to the amount of cotinine found when tobacco-based cigarettes were still in use. After completing this comparison, the researchers concluded that, while some of the established e-cigarette users received nicotine doses substantially smaller than the amount of nicotine obtained from traditional cigarette use, others received doses of nicotine from e-cigarettes that matched the amount of nicotine obtained from traditional cigarette use.
The authors of the study note that only about half of the e-cigarette users had cotinine/nicotine levels equal to the levels found in their saliva before they stopped smoking tobacco-based cigarettes. In addition, they note that the amount of cotinine in the saliva of the e-cigarette users often did not match up with the amount of nicotine contained in e-cigarette vaporization liquid. This second finding may reflect, at least in part, the lack of widely available knowledge on the contents of specific e-cigarette brands. As of May 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is taking the first steps toward broad-scale regulation of the e-cigarette market.
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