Cigarettes vs. e-Cigarettes: Which Is Less Environmentally Harmful?

An e-cigarette. The health effects of the devices are unknown, but might they provide some environmental benefits over traditional smokes? Photo: Jakemaheu, Wikimedia Commons

For years environmentalists have been pressuring cigarette makers to cut back on synthetic chemicals in their products, to reduce their harm to both smokers and non-smokers. Regulators have been worried about second hand smoke for years, and have been passing indoor smoking bans state by state. Today you can go to work, shop, or go out to eat in many places without being inundated with toxic haze from smokers.

However, there is still a problem with cigarette butts left behind by smokers. We all see this litter on our sidewalks, roads, and parking lots, often just feet from a trash bin. Unfortunately, many smokers still toss their spent cigarettes out their cars.

Although people are smoking less in America thanks to decades of public health campaigns, cigarette butts are still a significant trash problem. The core of the butt can take anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to decompose. During that time, the cigarette filters are full of tar, nicotine, and other toxins that can leach into the ground, potentially affecting any organism that comes into contact with them.

Butts pushed by rain into storm drains can make it into the ocean, where they can release their toxic chemicals, or get eaten by fish or birds.

Although it is also a controversial product, electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, could help reduce this toxic burden. The devices use a small amount of power to vaporize nicotine, which is then inhaled. Some are marketed as entirely nicotine free, and many have flavorings added. Many are advertised as helping smokers wean themselves off their habit.

Most electronic cigarettes are reusable, meaning only a tiny amount of vapor needs to be refilled for each use. This means they are potentially more eco-friendly than going through mountains of single-use products, which take resources to produce. e-Cigarettes are typically powered by reusable batteries, and are often charged via USB ports.

Because electronic cigarettes don’t produce smoke, they are much less risky to non-users and to air quality in general. The health impacts on users are not well known, since the products have only been on the market for a few years. The FDA has recommended against their use, pointing out that there isn’t enough data to know how much nicotine a user might actually inhale, and whether there might be adverse effects.

A number of groups have also warned that the products might be attractive to children, given their novelty and option for different flavorings. While many e-cigarettes look like traditional tobacco products, others resemble pens or USB memory sticks.

While some health professionals suggest consumers steer clear of e-cigarettes, it’s also possible that they could function as a useful smoking cessation intermediary. It’s obvious that quitting smoking is difficult, so maybe there is value to a product that may or may not cause some harm, but that helps one stop using a product that we know causes harm.

It’s clear e-cigarettes are safer for non-users, so does that qualify them as a worthy lesser of two evils?

Is it too convenient for non-smokers to say that people “should just not smoke or use e-cigarettes”? If it were easy, they’d already be doing that.

What do you think?

Photo: Pen e-cigarettes
Some e-cigarettes are fashioned to look like pens or other items. Photo: Equazcion, Wikimedia Commons

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