Electronic Cigarettes

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Electronic Cigarettes

Topic Overview

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that turn liquid nicotine into a vapour that you inhale. Many of them are made to look like real cigarettes. Some even have a light at the end that glows when you inhale.

For smokers, electronic cigarettes may satisfy nicotine cravings. And they may have less of the harmful chemicals that are in cigarette smoke. These cigarettes are often called e-cigarettes.

How do electronic cigarettes work?

E-cigarettes have three main parts.

  1. The mouthpiece has a cartridge. The cartridge contains a nicotine solution.
  2. A heating element turns the solution into a vapour when you inhale.
  3. A battery provides power to the heating element.

The nicotine in these cigarettes comes in flavours. Flavours include "regular" and "menthol." But they also include hundreds of other flavours like cherry, chocolate, and cola.

A chemical in the vapour turns it white so that it looks like smoke, even when you exhale.

Electronic cigars and pipes are also available.

Are e-cigarettes safe?

Since most of the harm from smoking is not from nicotine but from other things in tobacco, e-cigarettes may be safer than real cigarettes. But more research is needed before experts can say for sure.

The cartridges contain different levels of nicotine. So in theory, you could lower the nicotine levels over time until you no longer crave nicotine. This is why some people use them as aids to quitting smoking.

Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued consumer health warnings about e-cigarettes. Limited testing at the FDA showed that the nicotine levels stated on some cartridges weren't always right. And traces of cancer-causing chemicals were found in some cartridges.1 Although e-cigarettes may be available in some stores in Canada or through the Internet, Health Canada has not approved e-cigarettes for sale in Canada and advises people not to use them.2

Unlike other quit-smoking products—nicotine gums, nasal sprays, patches, and inhalers—e-cigarettes are not yet regulated to ensure their quality. And there is not yet proof that they work to reduce nicotine cravings or to help smokers quit smoking.

If you are thinking about using e-cigarettes to help you quit smoking, talk to your doctor first.

Related Information



  1. Westenberger BJ (2009). Evaluation of e-cigarettes. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Available online: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/ScienceResearch/UCM173250.pdf.
  2. Health Canada (2009). Advisory: Health Canada advises Canadians not to use electronic cigarettes. Available online: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/advisories-avis/_2009/2009_53-eng.php.

Other Works Consulted

  • Flouris AD, Oikonomou DN (2010). Electronic cigarettes: Miracle or menace? BMJ, 340: c311.
  • Yamin CK, et al. (2010). E-cigarettes: A rapidly growing Internet phenomenon. Annals of Internal Medicine, 153(9): 607–609.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Primary Medical Reviewer Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer John Hughes, MD - Psychiatry
Specialist Medical Reviewer Thomas M. Bailey, MD - Family Medicine
Last Revised May 24, 2011

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