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How does vaping work? The science and history explained

Aarthi Swaminathan
Finance Writer


Vaping has been dominating the news, with politicians and experts going back and forth about whether it’s good for smokers — or simply poison. But what exactly is vaping in the first place? And how does it work?

Vaping was intended to help smokers

The first documented mention of an electronic cigarette in 1930, when Joseph Robinson filed a patent for an “electric vaporizer” three years prior.

The idea was to create a device that was easy to use, to vaporize medicinal compounds, and not burn the user. But the product didn’t reach the market, according to a working paper by libertarian think tank Reason Foundation.

Several decades later in 1963, Herbert Gilbert filed a patent for a “smokeless non-tobacco cigarette.” Gilbert argued that his invention presented a “safe and harmless” way for smoking tobacco, “replacing burning tobacco and paper with heated, moist flavored air.”

A photo from Gilbert's patent. (Source: U.S. Patent No. 3,200,819)

“I am the first inventor and [patent holder] of the e-cig,” Gilbert declared in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “I wanted to … give people that are smokers — I smoked at the time — the opportunity to stop smoking, and that's it.”

Gilbert had no prior experience in creating these designs: “I’m an old scrap dealer,” the 88-year-old said. Gilbert filed his patent with an attorney and included drawings “and everything else” done by him.

The product failed to reach the market. Gilbert attributed that failure to pressure from Big Tobacco.

“As soon as I started to do work with the patent, the cigarette companies and the pharmacies did everything they could to stop me,” he alleged. “They fought me. … They fought me until the patent expired and then they all jumped on [it]... They just flopped the heck out of me.”

Eventually, in 2003, a Chinese pharmacist created a device that “became the basis for practically all of subsequent vape products,” the Reason Foundation researchers stated. And e-cigarettes began to appear on American shores in roughly 2007, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

(Source: CDC)

Types of e-cigs

Today’s device generally comes in a couple of different forms.

While they vary “widely in design and appearance… [they] generally operate in a similar manner and are composed of similar components,” according to the CDC.

They can be any of the following: e-cigarettes, e-cigs, cigalikes, e-hookahs, mods, vape pens, vapes, and tank systems.

They can be disposable, rechargeable, or they can come in one body or with a tank attached, as seen in the graphic above.

A vape shop worker organizes electronic smoking products in a local store in Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S., September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Juul, the most popular brand name in this space based on data from Wells Fargo, falls under the category “vapes.” The device is essentially shaped like a USB flash drive, is battery powered, and is easily refilled or replaced by single Juul “pods.”

The juice that one puts in the vape device also varies. You can buy a flavored one off the shelf or you can make your own. Flavoring in particular has been a subject of intense debate debate across America over the past few months.

“Flavoring is added to a lot of e-cigarettes and vaping devices in order to make the nicotine or cannabinoid taste better,” Weill Cornell Medicine Assistant Professor of Medicine Dr. Lindsay Lief told Yahoo Finance. “Some people think it also makes it more appealing to a more diverse crowd of people, including younger buyers of vaping devices. [Of] many of those chemicals being used to flavor it, we have some experience with [them] being ingested.”

The way Juul marketed its products early on — pushing some of its flavors in highly appealing ads on social media — has drawn considerable ire from parents and politicians. But at the same time, one expert previously told Yahoo Finance that the tactics weren’t anything new: The company was just borrowing a page out of Big Tobacco’s playbook.

A man smokes an E-Cigarette in the Vape Lab coffee bar, on August 27, 2014 in London, England. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

How it works

So how does it work? And how does the body react to it?

“When someone is vaping, he or she uses a device that can be small, like a traditional cigarette or look like a USB drive, and they bring it to their mouth and either with a button or just by inhaling a battery activated heating coil warms up a substance that then is aerosolized,” said Dr. Lief. “Aerosolized means made into tiny particles that you can inhale in. And they go through the mouth, through the main airway down into the lungs where they can mingle with oxygen and carbon dioxide that are in the small air sacs of the lung. And then the residual is exhaled.”

While both cigarettes and e-cigarettes are inhaled, the big difference was exactly what was being inhaled.

“The main harmful effects of traditional cigarettes are what we see built up over days, years and decades. Things like cancer, which is lung cancer, but also other cancers, vascular disease, as well as [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] and airways disease,” Dr. Lief explained.

Because what one was doing when smoking a regular cigarette was ingesting things like tar, formaldehyde, lead, nicotine, and 7,000 other chemicals, according to the American Lung Association.

“In an autopsy or a surgical specimen of a patient … we find black tar lining the airways of the lungs,” Dr. Lief explained.

Vaping, on the other hand, doesn’t contain tar, and doesn’t combust. But Dr. Lief — and other doctors — are finding its effects on patients’ X-ray scans.

“On an X-ray, our lungs generally look black, because air is radiolucent, and we don't see it on X-ray,” Dr. Lief said. “But in people who have vaping induced lung injury, you see white on both sides of the lung… So we know it's not affecting just, for example, the mouth or the main airways, but that it's getting into both sides of the lung and distal enough, far enough into the lung, to have an effect, sort of like pneumonia, where there's inflammatory cells found in the small air sacs.”

But there was still a lot to be learned about the effects of vaping, experts advise.

At the same time, imposing severe restrictions on vaping devices could “take us from potentially the single biggest improvement in public health in the United States toward a public health disaster in which cigarettes continue to be the dominant nicotine product,” Jonathan Foulds, an addiction researcher and tobacco specialist at Penn State University, told the Associated Press.

“The problem here is we have convinced adult America that vaping is as dangerous as smoking — and nothing could be further from the truth,” University of Michigan’s Kenneth Warner added.

Consequently, the key word for now was caution.

“People have come up with statistics like vaping is 95% more safer than cigarette smoking, but I don't think that's based in any rigorous study,” Dr. Lief said. In reality, “we don't have evidence right now that vaping causes those same long-term health outcomes — but they've only been around for about 10 years. So we have a lot to learn.”

In the meantime, Herbert Gilbert alleges that e-cigarettes — such as the one he invented — have the potential to save lives, as evidenced by his own.

“I'll tell you, I take zero medication. I'll be 89 in January,” said Gilbert. “My e-cigs always been propylene glycol glyceride, which are good for the lungs. And like I said, I take no medication, but I'll take one breath if you want to find out what I'm talking about. I'll let you hear it.”

He then proceeded to sing what sounded like the opening line of ‘As Long As She Needs Me’ by Sammy Davis Jr. for at more than 60 seconds without taking a breath.

— Ignazio Monda contributed to this story.

Aarthi is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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