Tobacco companies are about the last group you might expect to be overly conscientious about consumer health, but in approaching e-cigarettes, it seems they’re doing just that. The New York Times points out that tobacco giants Altria and Reynolds American, who make Marlboro and Camel, are branding their vapor products with elaborate warnings about the dangers of nicotine, despite being under no legal obligation to do so.
In some cases, e-cigarettes feature even scarier warnings than cigarettes do. For instance, look at the warning on Altria’s MarkTen compared to a pack of Marlboro Lights:
The MarkTen package warns: “This product is not a smoking cessation product and has not been tested as such. This product is intended for use by persons of legal age or older, and not by children, women who are pregnant or breast feeding, or persons with or at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or taking medicine for depression or asthma. Nicotine is addictive and very habit forming, and it is very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed. Nicotine can increase your heart rate and blood pressure and cause dizziness, nausea, and stomach pain. Inhalation of this product may aggravate existing respiratory conditions. Ingestion of the non-vaporized concentrated ingredients in the cartridges can be poisonous.” It also warns: “This product contains nicotine, a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.” It also says “Keep out of reach of children” and promises”important additional safety information” inside the package.
The Marlboro Lights feature only one warning: “Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight.”
In that case, the e-cigarette case warns of the same problems as the cigarette pack — pregnancy complications — in addition to other risks.
Cigarettes in the US are required to carry either the aforementioned warning about pregnancy or one of the following (some of which identify risks that aren’t associated with e-cigarettes): “Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health”; “Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide”; “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.”
Tobacco manufacturers recently, and narrowly, avoided having to put graphic warning labels on cigarette packs, including pictures of diseased lungs and a smoker with a hole in his throat.
So why are these companies placing such aggressive warnings on e-cigarettes?
“Experts with years studying tobacco company behaviour say they strongly suspect several motives, but, chiefly, that the e-cigarette warnings are a very low-risk way for the companies to insulate themselves from future lawsuits and, even more broadly, to appear responsible, open and frank,” Matt Richtel writes in the Times. “By doing so, the experts said, big tobacco curries favour with consumers and regulators, earning a kind of legitimacy that they crave and have sought for decades. Plus, they get to appear more responsible than the smaller e-cigarette companies that seek to unseat them.”
In any case, most experts agree that e-cigarettes are not as bad for you as cigarettes, though the full extent of their health effects is unknown.
We do know that nicotine is addictive; withdrawal effects include feeling irritable and depressed. Being a stimulant, it can also be dangerous for people with heart problems. However, it is not a carcinogen. And according to the American Cancer Society, “[i]n the brains of animals, tobacco smoke causes chemical changes that are not fully explained by the effects of nicotine” that might partially explain why cigarettes are so addictive.
Many brands of e-cig also contain propylene glycol, which can be dangerous, but typically only at exposures much higher than those caused by vaping.
On the other hand, the health effect of smoking cigarettes are well-documented, and include lung cancer, throat cancer, emphysema, and heart disease.
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