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Electronic cigarette FAQs

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Around 2.9 million adults in the UK are currently using electronic cigarettes.

Around half (1.5 million) are ex-smokers who have abandoned tobacco in favour of e-cigarettes.

Experts say e-cigarettes carry a fraction of the health risks of ordinary cigarettes and can be an effective way of stopping smoking, particularly when combined with extra quitting support.

However, the devices have stoked controversy ever since they were introduced to the domestic market in 2005.

Opponents say the nicotine they deliver is harmful and that e-cigarettes could act as a 'gateway' to smoking for children and teenagers.

However UK health authorities have repeatedly said that e-cigarettes are helping to cut smoking rates and that there is no evidence that they lure youngsters into a tobacco smoking habit.

The evidence base is changing, and more recently another nicotine-delivery product has appeared on the market in which tobacco is heated in a cigarette-like device, rather than burned, in order to deliver a more convincing smoking-like 'hit'.

E-cigarettes, or the latest 'heated tobacco products', are devices for delivering nicotine vapour instead of tobacco smoke. What they share between them is that nicotine is vaporised rather than being a product of burning.

How do e-cigarettes work?

Early e-cigarettes used to consist of 3 parts: a battery, an atomiser, and a cartridge containing nicotine suspended in propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine and flavourings.

However, the atomiser used to heat the liquid was prone to failure, so modern devices usually have the atomiser built into a disposable cartridge.

When the user sucks on the e-cigarette, the liquid in the cartridge is heated so that some of it evaporates. This vapour delivers nicotine into the user's lungs.

E-cigarettes do not burn tobacco. Neither do they give off tar or carbon monoxide, two of the most damaging by-products in tobacco smoke.

Nicotine vapour, resembling steam or smoke, is released into the surrounding air as the user exhales.

Using an e-cigarette is known as 'vaping'.

There are a number of types available. These are:

  • Cigalikes (cig-a-likes): These are disposable or rechargeable and resemble tobacco cigarettes
  • Vape pens: These devices are shaped like a pen or small tube and have a tank to store e-liquid and replaceable heating coils
  • Mods: These are generally the largest e-cigarette devices, with longer lasting batteries

Models with refillable tanks are currently the most popular.

Are e-cigarettes regulated?

E-cigarettes are not covered by general legislation banning smoking in public places.

It is legal to 'vape' an e-cigarette in a public place because there is no burning and no smoke is emitted - only odourless vapour.

However, they may still be subject to bans in some places, including aircraft, trains, shopping centres, and hospitals.

E-cigarettes are widely available in the UK, in specialist vape stores, pharmacies, and other retail outlets.

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