NOTE: This article is not intended to promote the use of nicotine; which is a toxic and highly addictive substance.
There are some horrible mistakes you make when you’re a teenager. Some you get to walk away from, wiser for the experience. Others you spend your life repairing. A few you may never be able to. Smoking can often be the latter.
I’ve published a few articles on tobacco related issues on Green Living Tips over the years and I’ve always acknowledged my writing on the topic was rather hypocritical as I was a smoker.
I say “was” – on July 24, 2012 a major change occurred in my life. After nearly 30 years of consistent and very heavy smoking – a habit I had started by the age of 14 – I smoked my final cigarette. After trying various methods that were all spectacular failures for me, what stopped my tobacco smoking dead in its tracks was an ecigarette.
Electronic cigarettes are rechargeable battery operated devices. They do not use tobacco, instead they vaporise a liquid mix of propylene glycol and/or vegetable glycerine plus food grade flavorings at a relatively low temperature to create a vapor that looks like smoke.
An Ecig Kit – Learn more about ecigarettes
While liquids used may also contain nicotine, some smokers have been able to kick the habit using nicotine-free liquids, or wean themselves off nicotine based liquids over time onto liquids without the addictive substance, then finally ceasing altogether. An average smoker will only require a very small amount of liquid a day – around 2 mls (.067 fl. oz.).
To say I’m impressed with ecigarettes is somewhat of an understatement. There is a lot of controversy and misinformation surrounding the devices, so I recently launched a site to provide more in-depth information on the topic based on my own experiences and research – EcigAlternative.com
In this article, I just wanted to focus on some the environmental aspects of ecigarettes.
The green street cred of ecigarettes
Are ecigs green? In a nutshell, no. Their nature means they never can be. Are they more environmentally friendly than smoking tobacco cigarettes? In my opinion, yes; definitely.
A nicotine liquid based ecigarette system still has a connection to the tobacco industry – as that is where the nicotine comes from; so many of tobacco-related environmental impacts still apply at the production stage of the liquids. But there are some distinct advantages.
Some of tobacco’s greatest evils related to the burning of the plant material. Combusting tobacco results in the creation and release of thousands of chemicals, dozens of which are carcinogenic. The world’s billion smokers collectively contribute a significant amount of this very toxic air pollution each day.
Aside from the death toll in terms of smokers, an estimated 600,000 non-smokers die each year through being exposed to second-hand smoke.
The vapors generated by the liquid in ecigs does not have the same chemical structure of tobacco smoke. Only traces of a couple of carcinogenic materials have been found in ecig vapors – far, far lower than in tobacco smoke to the point they are almost negligible.
Something I wasn’t aware of until recently is smoking tobacco also releases a deadly radioactive material – polonium.
While polonium is present in minute quantities in foods we eat, as the lining of our digestive systems is continually shed and replaced, when we ingest polonium through food it is passed out of the body.
It’s a different story for smokers. Cigarettes burn at very high temperatures, enough to melt the polonium in the tobacco, turning it into a gas that condensates on sensitive lung tissue – which isn’t replaced.
A pack a day smoker will receive the equivalent of 200 X-Rays a year and 2% of smokers will die as a direct result of radiation related illnesses. Needless to say, all this polonium being emitted into the atmosphere isn’t exactly a positive thing for the wider environment either.
No butts about it
My switch to ecigarettes means I won’t be contributing at least 1,600 cigarette butts soaked in toxic materials to the waste stream *each month* – another aspect of smoking that weighed heavily upon me. Billions of cigarette butts are discarded globally each year; each a little bundle of poison that will take years to break down and leaching toxins as it does.
Cigarette butts also require some complex chemistry and significant energy to create.
While the use of ecigs does involve some consumables, such as the liquid, cartridges/atomizers or cartomizers (which can be refilled a number of times), even waste related to these components can be minimized by making the right choice in equipment – and most of these consumables (aside from liquids of course) can be recycled to some degree.
The number of fires started by smokers each year is phenomenal. Just in the USA, in 2010 over 90,000 fires were started by cigarettes. These fires resulted in 610 deaths and $663 million in damages. While new laws are now in place in the USA for “fire safe” cigarettes, it’s expected the changes to cigarette design will result in a 33% reduction in fires. It’s good, but that still means tens of thousands of cigarette related fires each year.
Aside from destroying houses and lives (and these fires generating very toxic smoke), fires started by cigarettes have also wiped out huge tracts of native vegetation around the world.
I used to have nightmares about accidentally starting a fire on my chunk of Australia, one that would spread to neighbouring properties. I no longer have that worry as the fire risk associated with a good quality ecigarette is extremely low as nothing is burned – and that brings me to the next important point.
Ecig devices and the environment
In addition to the liquids and other consumable items, there is the main part of the device itself to consider – the battery and housing, a small amount of electronic circuitry and associated components such as a charging cable and/or pack.
Ecigarettes aren’t all that complex and are small devices, but like all electronics, quality plays an important role in the impact the equipment will have environmentally speaking. Most components can be recycled, but a poor quality device won’t last as long, creating more waste – and it takes energy to recycle (there are also safety aspects).
There are also single-use ecigs available – while these can be useful as a trial product; like most disposable items the waste is such that I couldn’t recommend them for regular usage.
The big picture
While ecigarettes require a level of consumption of valuable resources, if used as a cessation tool I think the long term gain far outweighs the short term environmental pain. Even just as a harm minimisation tool, there are related benefits.
For example, lets say I kept smoking at my previous level and survived another 20 years. During that time I would have smoked over a quarter of a tonne of tobacco and generated a staggering 384,000+ cigarette butts – along with their toxic payload.
A note on propylene glycol
Propylene glycol in ecig liquids is often seized upon by those opposed to ecigarettes, who say it is a deadly poison. They are confusing it with ethylene glycol and some other glycols, which are toxic. Propylene glycol is generally recognized as safe and is used in medications (including asthma inhalers); among other applications.
Propylene glycol can also be converted from glycerol – which is vegetable glycerine, another component of ecig liquid which as the name suggests comes from plants.
However, like anything, it is important to buy liquids from reputable merchants.
Don’t demonize smokers
This is getting away a little from the environmental thrust of this article, but the fewer smokers there are, the less the impact on the environment.
In order for someone to quit smoking, they must first make the decision to stop. Demonizing smokers does not help them get to that point.
Smokers are becoming increasingly marginalized in some countries and paying dearly for their habit not just in terms of their health, but through massive taxes.
I used to joke that I was simply pre-paying my palliative care and that I would need to take up heroin dealing to pay for my tobacco habit. However, I used to get very angry when people would generalise and state smokers were a drain on society. I was paying my way; and then some.
While some who smoke are just inconsiderate people generally regardless of whether they have a cigarette hanging out their mouth or not, others are ashamed of their addiction even if they don’t admit it – the air of defiance is just a smokescreen (excuse the pun); a reaction to the negativity or just fatalism covering fear.
Many smokers have tried everything they can to quit and have failed. Some simply cannot envision a life without tobacco. It sounds insane, but I understand it as I was one of those people. Many, like me, began at a very early age and do not understand what life can be like without tobacco because they simply cannot remember. Tobacco is a frenemy to hundreds of millions of people.
It’s important to understand that not all smokers become heavily addicted and for those that are, quitting smoking is more than just about willpower.
Reformed smokers can at times be the most aggressive critics of practising smokers. Some feel that because they were able to kick the habit, everyone should be able to through self discipline alone or whatever method they used.
However, around 30% of smokers will find it incredibly hard to give up due to the way their brains react to nicotine. This is not an excuse, it is fact. The brains of people in this group create more nicotine receptors than in the other 70%. When these receptors do not receive nicotine, that is when the physical withdrawal symptoms kick in and the more nicotine receptors, the more amplified the withdrawals become. These symptoms can get to the point the person can no longer function.
Quitting can be excruciating and terrifying. No-one should have to go through that pain if they don’t have to – and if ecigs help them in this respect, it should be supported.
It’s about people AND planet
It’s estimated 100 million died from the effects of smoking last century. This century, up to 1 billion will be killed by their addiction.
Yes, it could been seen as a method of reining in population growth which is another major environmental threat. However, I don’t think lung cancer and other smoking related diseases are particularly kind strategy when there are many other population management approaches that don’t involve killing people. That and the fact non-smokers subjected to second-hand smoke suffer too.
While in some countries smoking is decreasing, in other heavily populated countries, it is increasing due to rapid population growth and increased marketing efforts by tobacco companies that are not kept on a short leash in those regions.
While ecigs haven’t been around long enough to understand if they will cause long term damage to the user (aside from known issues concerning nicotine), just based on what we know now, they are the lesser of the evils in my opinion both from a human health and environmental viewpoint.
I feel that governments that profess to be against smoking should be doing all they can to recognise these devices as legitimate nicotine replacement therapies as soon as possible, rather than being influenced by Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and the uninformed.
Some of these entities want to see ecigs banned, others want to take control as there is literally billions of dollars to be made from the technology.
One of my concerns is that if ecigarettes are given the status they deserve, like other nicotine replacement therapies they will be under Big Pharma’s control exclusively and made horribly expensive, limiting their appeal. Nearly 80% of the world’s one billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries.
For the moment, we are the experiment; we’re the research subjects. The hard yards are being done by us and the companies manufacturing the products currently available. We have financed much of the research and development. There is no reason that ecigs need to be expensive if Big Pharma or Big Tobacco decides to run with them (and rumor is they will soon).
I have been more than happy being an ecig guinea pig of sorts – the benefits I have experienced already just simply through being able to stop smoking tobacco have been far more than I ever expected and it’s a message I want to communicate to as many as possible – for people, for planet.
For further information on ecigarettes and my experience with these devices, visit EcigAlternative.com