Explainer: What are e-cigarettes?

New battery-powered devices deliver nicotine, a dangerous and addictive drug

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. 

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Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-powered electronic devices. They were developed as an alternative to tobacco products, such as cigarettes. 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.

Instead of burning tobacco, a small battery inside powers a device that heats a liquid solution to create an aerosol spray. It emerges like a 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 can include flavors that sometimes resemble fruits, candy, mint or chocolate.

Since 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has extended its regulatory control over tobacco to include vape products. (E-cigarettes are considered a type of tobacco product as they tend to contain nicotine, which is derived from tobacco plants.) On January 2, 2020, FDA banned U.S. sales of prefilled cartridge e-cigarettes in any flavor other than tobacco or menthol. FDA later banned certain companies from selling unauthorized youth-appealing flavored e-liquids.

As of 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported data indicating that 11.3% of U.S. high school students and 2.8% of middle school students had vaped.

NOTE: This story has been updated to cover emerging U.S. regulatory policy and recent statistics on use.

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