Sean Morgan, above, exhales a cloud of propylene glycol while using his e-cigarette. The cloud is the same compound found in the vapor of smoke machines. (Mark Ylen/Democrat-Herald)
A Sweet Home, Oregon, man is promoting the use of e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to traditional smoking
SWEET HOME, OREGON — Sean Morgan is very clear: He’s not trying to promote smoking to nonsmokers, or to children, or to anyone else not already legally into the habit.
But for fellow smokers like himself, who enjoy cigarettes but not some of their side effects, the Sweet Home resident suggests giving an e-cigarette a try.
“I don’t want to quit smoking,” said Morgan, 39, who’s gone through about a pack and a half of cigarettes a day since age 18. “I like smoking. But I don’t like smoke.”
About the size of a ballpoint pen, electronic or e-cigarettes are battery-powered vaporizers that turn nicotine into a breathable vapor.
The Electronic Cigarettes Association, a group of product companies, backs the product as “an alternative to a known killer,” a stance the federal Food and Drug Administration doesn’t share. This past April, the FDA announced it intends to treat e-cigarettes the same as traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products.
Morgan doesn’t believe the two should be considered equal, and has asked the Sweet Home School Board not to treat them so.
He’d like the board to allow the use of e-cigs on school property, as long as they aren’t being used during school-related events. He’s thinking specifically of the Oregon Jamboree, the country music festival that takes place on the grounds of Sweet Home High School, where he volunteers each summer.
Morgan’s request comes as several public entities across the U.S. have included e-cigs in their smoking bans, including agencies in Washington state.
At its regular meeting this Wednesday, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department will consider a revised version of its proposed e-cigarette regulation to allow use in public places where minors are lawfully prohibited. It would also allow “vaping” in places of employment that aren’t public places.
Cigarettes, in Morgan’s view, are harmful because they contain tobacco and emit tobacco smoke, which in turn can cause harm to others. In contrast, the nicotine in e-cigs is drawn directly into one person’s body without the tar, ash or carbon monoxide that comes with tobacco.
The carrier substance in Morgan’s brand of e-cig is propylene glycol, a compound found in fake “smoke” used for concerts and firefighter trainings. “What comes out is basically just fog,” he said.
It’s possible there’s some harm in it, he acknowledges, although studies to date haven’t noted any if the compound is consumed in small amounts. A New Zealand study also found trace amounts of carcinogens from the distillation process.
Morgan was concerned about the health implications at first. After learning about e-cigs roughly two years ago, he researched the products for months, worrying about whether the switch would hurt him.
“Then I started thinking, what’s in a cigarette? Forty to 60 carcinogens?” Morgan laughed, shaking his head. “It’s a no-brainer.”
The jury’s still out on the threat posed by nicotine itself, without tobacco. Some studies have found the chemical itself to be strongly addicting and associate its stimulant properties with hypertension, breathing problems and sleep disorders. According to the Mayo Clinic, the risk of cancer associated with long-term nicotine replacement therapy appears to be minimal, although one study indicated long-term exposure to even low levels of nicotine could lead to increased risk of mouth cancer in certain individuals.
The lack of hard data on the safety of e-cigs for users and bystanders still prompted the same Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department to craft its e-cigarette regulation.
From its press release: “We still believe there is a lack of hard data to assure the public that e-cigarettes are safe for the user and bystanders, but at the same time we acknowledge that there is a similar lack of data that they are in fact harmful.”
For Morgan, switching to e-cigarettes are a calculated risk; one he’s willing to take in the same way as the risks that come with consumption of caffeine.
“That’s kind of like how I view it, drinking coffee or Pepsi,” he said. “And I’m not going to stop eating red meat and eggs. I view this in the same light, I guess.”
In the meantime, he said, he doesn’t feel any of the side effects tobacco smoke produced. He’s stopped coughing. His sense of taste and smell have returned. He can sleep at night and feel energized when he wakes up. His coworkers prefer the scents of the vapor flavors (peach and espresso are among Morgan’s favorites) among to the smell of stale smoke.
He’s even saving money; spending roughly $40 a month on cartridges and replacement parts for the e-cigs compared with the $180 that used to support his habit of four cartons of cigarettes per month. (Most startup kits, according to the Electronic Cigarettes Association, are between $75 and $100.)
Some e-smokers use the devices to try to kick the habit altogether. Morgan isn’t one of those, but noted he might be able to do so more easily if he chooses.
At one point, his “e-juice” consumption dropped to just half a bottle a month, down from two bottles a month, which was roughly the equivalent in nicotine of the pack and a half of cigarettes he had been smoking before picking up the e-cigs. After more than 20 years of being hooked on cigarettes, being able to cut his use by three-quarters was a significant change.
“Now, I can go without smoking most of a day,” he said.
Morgan said he understands the Sweet Home School Board’s questions about the product and some members’ reluctance to seem soft on smoking.
“This is new and scary and like cigarettes,” he said. “My hope is someday this will be completely divorced from the concept of smoking cigarettes.”
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