derrick z. jackson

E-cigarettes: the new fracking

Electronic cigarettes are gaining popularity amid a big push by tobacco companies, but their long-term health effects are still unknown.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Electronic cigarettes are gaining popularity amid a big push by tobacco companies, but their long-term health effects are still unknown.

I LIKEN ELECTRONIC cigarettes to fracking. The new ways of drilling deep down and sideways to untap natural gas have delivered a fuel that is cleaner than coal. But while many people hail natural gas as a bridge to renewable energy, others fear that fracking will give us new levels of air pollution and groundwater contamination. The critics say we are still addicted to a fossil fuel.

E-cigarettes are proliferating in a parallel universe. The battery-operated devices are “cleaner” than tobacco cigarettes, as they do not burn tobacco and do not contain the tar directly linked to lung cancer. Websites for e-cigarettes note how they do not produce the smell, ash, and smoke that have led to workplace and public-space bans for tobacco cigarettes.

But it is far from a clean smoke. E-cigarettes contain liquefied nicotine, which is heated into a vapor that is inhaled. Nicotine is addictive. Many smokers say they smoke e-cigarettes as a bridge to quitting. But there are plenty of reasons to fear this is just another way to keep people addicted to the smoking industry, period.


The Globe recently reported that Boston has issued 61 store permits to sell e-cigarettes since March, five times more than in the same period last year. The explosion is no coincidence. In recent months, an industry dominated by small entrepreneurs has been joined by Altria, RJ Reynolds, and Lorillard.

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They are getting in the game before the Food and Drug Administration can regulate them and while the medical community is divided between doctors who believe e-cigarettes should be part of “harm reduction” strategies to curb tobacco smoking and those who feel that no new type of smoking of any kind should be encouraged. The FDA initially tried to take the latter approach but was told by a federal judge in 2010 that it cannot ban the importation of e-cigarettes made in China.

The judge suggested they be regulated like tobacco cigarettes. Indeed, Boston and other cities and some states are treating them like cigarettes, banning sales to minors and prohibiting them in workplaces. The FDA is still working on regulations but warns on its website that e-cigarette safety has not been studied and that it is unknown whether the high-tech smoke lures young people to tobacco.

That is the dance we are really talking about. Smoking companies are clearly positioning e-cigarettes as healthier. At an investor conference last month, Lorillard CEO Murray Kessler said regulation of e-cigarettes “depends on how the FDA embraces the potential for harm reduction . . . . If you want to jump on this opportunity and understand that this can help reduce smoking and save lives, and de-normalize smoking, then you’re going to embrace it.”

And investors are embracing it. NJOY, a leader in the e-cigarette market, recently received a $10 million investment from Napster music-sharing entrepreneur Sean Parker. Straight out of Fracking 101, Parker, who does donate heavily to cancer-fighting causes, claimed to the Wall Street Journal, “There’s a huge opportunity to transition the entire world away from dangerous, carcinogenic, combusting cigarettes.”


But the marketing is hardly altruistic, from cartoons where the smoker gets the buxom gal, to ads where e-cigarette smokers puff away to rock music, to the flavoring of many of the e-cigarettes. The FDA has banned fruit flavors from tobacco cigarettes that attracted underage smokers, but the e-cigarette world is full of flavors such as Chocolate Thunder, Peach Schnapps, Cherry Crush, and Tahitian Punch. One company markets Butter Rum and Cinnamon Apple Crumble flavorings by saying, respectively, “Go back to childhood,” and, “Remember mom’s homemade apple pie?”

Can these sweet-tooth evocations really be for middle-age smokers who want to quit?

In the world of fossil energy, we have decided to frack now, and ask questions later. In the world of smoking, e-cigarette makers are flooding the market before any questions can be asked. They want us to believe that since nothing is as bad as real cigarettes, e-cigarettes are inherently good. The history of the smoking industry strongly suggests that once again, it is blowing smoke.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.