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“What do we know about e-cigarettes?”
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“What do we know about e-cigarettes?”

alvin maElectronic cigarettes are rapidly gaining ground with consumers in North America, writes Alvin Ma, 22, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Canada. But the media has yet to explain the risks and benefits of the new product.

“Electronic Cigarettes Could Save Lives – Or Hook a New Generation on Nicotine” is the exploratory tagline of Eliza Gray’s TIME magazine article “The Future of Smoking.” 

Unfortunately the article is not easily accessible, as the online version on TIME’s website requires a subscription. Nevertheless, I will try my best to introduce the topic of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes for short) and the article’s framing of it.

An e-cigarette contains a cartridge, an atomizer to create the vapour, a battery to heat liquid (the vapour source), and an LED light; and is differentiated from smoking as the act of using an e-cigarette is referred to as “vaping.”

E-cigarette sales have increased six-fold from $300 million USD in 2012 to approximately $1.8 billion USD in 2013. The growing popularity, particularly in my neighbouring country of the United States where the Food and Drug Administration is planning to impose new regulations, has made this issue relevant for coverage in Western media. E-cigarettes have been presented in the news with a diversity of frames, messages, and contexts, for example: “E-cigarette use doubles among US teens” found in USA Today, “E-cigarettes as good as nicotine patches in helping smokers quit” found in the Toronto Star, and “E-cigarette wrecked car when it EXPLODED ‘like a firework’” found in The Daily Mail.

There is no firm evidence that e-cigarettes are an effective smoking cessation tool, nor that smoking e-cigarettes is beneficial to health as compared to smoking tobacco cigarettes. The safety of e-cigarettes containing nicotine has also been brought into question. Health Canada states the safety of e-cigarettes has not yet been determined, and has thus banned e-cigarettes containing nicotine from Canada. They have unknown health effects, but are widely framed as a better option for health than tobacco smoking as a result of the lack of known carcinogenic ingredients. The proclamation of health benefits of e-cigarettes has less to do with the actual health effects of e-cigarettes and more with the known harmful effects of tobacco cigarettes.

Gray’s article is heavily tilted in favour of the “game changing” e-cigarette industry. Although a quote from a medical school professor stating that an e-cigarette is “only 10% to 20% less polluting than a massive forest fire” is present in the article, it is buried near the end alongside the “cautious optimism” opinion from the American Centre for Disease Control. Furthermore, it is contrasted with the claim that “the level of pollution [an e-cigarette] emits is 100 to 10,000 times lower than [US Occupational Safety and Health Administration] indoor pollution standards” from a scientist who works for an e-cigarette company.

While TIME magazine is not known as a health-based magazine, I nonetheless recommend that peer-reviewed scientific data should be the basis for such an expository article rather than anecdotal evidence and scientists who work for e-cigarette corporations. In addition, coverage could examine new peer-reviewed scientific evidence about alternative cessation techniques and whether smokers stop with the electronic cigarettes altogether or whether it is simply a new habit. Furthermore, it could explore a comparison of other methods of aiding smoking cessation, and/or could explore the implications of e-cigarettes on health equity using a broader determinant of health lens.

Overall, while the article’s attention-grabbing title implies a discussion of e-cigarettes both as a quitting device as well as a potential behavioural harm, the actual piece is much more heavily focussed on the former while leaving the latter largely out of the frame. This is a bit misleading, and the author could have done a better job of health promotion and communication.

However, this article is still informative to a certain degree. For a popular culture news article, fulfilling all of the above recommendations within a page-limited context is difficult. Furthermore, I recognize that the author must capture and sustain the attention span of the audience. Nonetheless, for the benefit of those who may not have the media literacy, this article can be strengthened to better inform the wide-reaching popular magazine audience about what science knows and does not know about e-cigarettes.
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This blog article is adapted from a group project for my Health Communication class. I am grateful to Debra Kriger (PhD candidate, University of Toronto; MPH, Queen’s University) and Sandhya Mylabathula (MSc. candidate, University of Toronto) for allowing me to share this content.

photo credit: justinmatthew21 via photopin cc

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About me:
I’m currently a student and research assistant for the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto. I also teach English at an ESL language school and serve as a private tutor for various other subjects. Passionate about teaching, sports, and politics, I hope to blend these interests and one day teach university-level courses on the politics of sports.
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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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