Explainer: What are e-cigarettes? | Science News for Students

Explainer: What are e-cigarettes?

New battery-powered devices deliver nicotine, a dangerous and addictive drug
Mar 19, 2014 — 10:30 am EST

Electronic cigarettes are billed as a healthier alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes. However, e-cigarettes still expose users to nicotine, the addictive drug also found in tobacco. 


Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-powered electronic devices. They were developed as an alternative to tobacco products, such as cigarettes. Indeed, because e-cigarettes lack tobacco — and emit no smoke — the companies that make them have argued their products are safer than cigarettes. Indeed, they were developed as a way to help smokers wean themselves off of tobacco. But while potentially safer than inhaling tobacco smoke, vapors from e-cigarettes are far from harmless, health officials note.

E-cigarettes release nicotine, an addictive and potentially dangerous drug. So users can become dependent on e-cigarettes much as smokers become addicted to tobacco.

A tiny light at the tip turns on when someone takes a puff. This is meant to resemble the burn of a regular cigarette. So to the eye, e-cigarettes may resemble traditional cigarettes or cigars. But instead of burning tobacco, a small battery inside powers a device that heats a liquid solution to create an aerosol spray. It emerges like an invisible mist. This is what the user will inhale.

E-cigarette companies call this aerosol a vapor. As a result, many people refer to puffing on e-cigarettes as vaping. The solution used to create that vapor contains various ingredients. These include flavors that sometimes resemble fruits, candy, mint or chocolate.

As of 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 1.78 million school kids had at least tried e-cigarettes. Currently, there are no U.S. regulations on the advertising and sale of e-cigarettes.

Power Words

aerosol    Particles of a solid or liquid that are small enough to remain airborne for minutes to weeks.

addiction  The uncontrolled use of a habit-forming drug.

e-cigarette (short for electronic cigarette)  Battery-powered devices that disperse nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale.

nicotine   A chemical compound present in tobacco. It creates the ‘buzz’ effect associated with smoking. It is one of the main ingredients in many e-cigarettes.

tobacco   A plant cultivated for its leaves. Dried tobacco leaves are burned in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves are also sometimes chewed. The main constituent of tobacco leaves is nicotine.

vaping    A new slang term for the use e-cigarettes, because these devices emit vapor, not smoke.


C. Corey, et al. “Notes from the field: Electronic cigarette use among middle and high school students — United States, 2011–2012.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Sept. 6, 2013.

Further Reading

Learn more about risks of vaping and e-cigarettes here from our collections landing page.

A.L. Mascarelli. “The dangerous rise of electronic cigarettes.Science News for Students. March, 19, 2014.

J. Raloff. “Many teens try alternatives to cigarettes.” Science News for Students. Nov. 29, 2013.