When electronic cigarettes (also known as “e-cigarettes” or simply “e-cigs”) first emerged in the mainstream tobacco market about a decade ago, tobacco users and even some health advocates found cause for optimism. But growing evidence – and a recent accident that points to negligent product design – is also pointing to cause for concern.
The underlying technology for e-cigs is nearly 100 years old, but the devices have only become mainstream in the last five to ten years.  Entire stores are now dedicated to selling e-cigs, “vape pens,” and the various liquids users consume using the pens. They are also commonplace in convenience stores, just like the ubiquitous tobacco products they are sometimes seen as replacing.
The basic technological features of an e-cig include a column with a heating element, a power source (e.g., a battery), a container for the liquid that is to be vaporized, and a mouthpiece. A user holds the device to the lips (as with a traditional cigarette, pipe, etc.) and activates the heating element. That heating element vaporizes the liquid (including the common active ingredient, nicotine), and as the user draws on the mouthpiece a cloud of vapor enters the mouth, throat, and lungs.  Some users prefer e-cigs because they perceive vaporized nicotine to be less harsh or otherwise unhealthy than combusted nicotine, because users can more easily produce a large and impressive “cloud” to exhale, and because the devices are still subject to light regulation (or none at all) and therefore can be utilized more widely and with fewer restrictions.
Safer Than Tobacco?
After decades of denying it, tobacco companies finally admitted that smoking tobacco can cause health problems for consumers. The most widely known example of this admission was the companies’ agreement to settle massive class-action lawsuits of the 1980s and 1990s. Tobacco use is associated with cancers of the mouth, gums, throat, and especially of the lungs. Any high-school student who is at least half paying attention in health class knows that smoking tobacco involves inhaling smoke (i.e., combusted tobacco leaves, plus additives) into one’s lungs. This can cause burning-type injuries to the tissue of the lungs, and it exposes the body to byproducts of the many additives found in conventional side effects. Smoking also leaves deposits of tar on the inside lining of the lungs, which is heavily linked to lung cancer. 
Proponents of e-cigs point to these harms and argue that e-cigs offer a safer alternative. Since there is no combustion, they argue, the harms associated with tar buildup can be avoided. And with the advanced technology of today’s e-cigs, the “dosage” of nicotine can be controlled. This feature is at the core of why certain health advocates point to e-cigs as a smoking cessation tool. Indeed, the federal agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention takes the position that e-cigs can benefit non-pregnant, adult smokers by replacing conventional tobacco products with e-cigs as part of an overall smoking cessation or reduction plan. 
The core idea is that e-cigs allow users to taper-off the amount of nicotine they are using. The problem is that this promise often goes unfulfilled. One study found that nearly three-fifths of smokers continued using conventional tobacco products even after adopting e-cigs. Additionally, the vogue nature of e-cigs, combined with their fruity and sweet flavorings, are attracting young smokers; one study found a 900 percent increase, and health advocates worry that e-cigs are becoming a gateway to traditional smoking. Some online vendors advertise in excess of 400 flavor offerings under various zany names.  One website categorizes its flavor repertoire with these headings:
Finally, much remains to be understood about the health effects of vaping, including the byproducts of the various chemicals found in vape fluid. 
Tragedy In Ely
Austin Adams, a 17-year-old living in rural Ely, Nevada, is walking evidence of the risks of e-cigs. The teen began using an e-cig to try and quit his habit of conventional smoking, but one day his e-cig exploded in his mouth. Adams was rushed to the nearest hospital – in Salt Lake City, Utah, five hours east across the Nevada-Utah border – for treatment. Doctors found Adams’s jaw cracked, several teeth missing, and some of his gum tissue “vaporized.”  Adams’s injuries are devastating, but he was lucky to survive with his life.
According to one study, some 700 people visit the emergency room annually to address injuries from burns or explosions associated with e-cigs. Two people are known to have died while using the devices, whose design and tubular shape can turn them into “flaming rockets” when they fail.  Researchers believe that the risk lies in the devices’ lithium-ion batteries, the same kind found in cell phones. Anyone who has had an aging cell phone knows that it begins to “run hot” as the battery ages and begins to fail. Excessive heat from lithium-ion batteries were blamed for explosions and fires associated with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone.  The same batteries are used in e-cigs, and known risks include leaving the devices to charge unattended or overnight and allowing them to come into contact with metal (such as coins or keys) in one’s pockets. 
If you or a loved one have been injured by a negligently designed e-cig, vape pen, or any other defective product, it is important that you contact an experienced products liability attorney quickly for guidance on preserving evidence, consulting medical experts, and forming a legal strategy.
Image Credit: Lindsay Fox on Flickr