The future of smoking: E-cigarettes explained

Are e-cigarettes the smoker's salvation from a slow death at the hands of tobacco, or just another gimmick? Here's everything you need to know, from how the technology works to potential safety concerns, one smoker's first-hand tale of transition, and recommended models.

Smoking cigarettes is just not cool anymore. And that’s a good thing: According to the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 443,000 Americans die every year from tobacco use, and 49,000 of those deaths are caused by second-hand smoke. Of course, the problem is that quitting smoking is so difficult that many never put out their last butt until it’s far, far too late. The CDC reported Thursday that, while 68.8 percent of smokers wish they could quit, and 52 percent have tried to quit in the last year, only 6 percent manage to do so entirely.

One of the reasons quitting is so staggeringly difficult — and you will rarely hear anyone admit this — is that smoking is awesome. Sure, that’s the nicotine talking, as any non-smoker will snobbishly tell you. But that’s not the whole story, either. Many smokers simply enjoy the activity in and of itself; the smoke breaks during work, the social element, the satisfaction of oral fixation. And inexplicably, the act of smoking is just, well, nice. Fortunately for us smokers, there is a potentially superior alternative: e-cigarettes.

Invented by Herbert A. Gilbert in 1963, and developed by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik in 2003, e-cigarettes contain no tobacco, no tar, or most other toxic substances found in regular cigarettes.The technology has made significant leaps in the last year that make these tiny contraptions a perfect replacement for tobacco cigarettes. So much so that those who jump on board may never smoke another tobacco cigarette again. And yet, e-cigarettes have only recently begun to make their way into the mainstream. Because of this, I’ve decided to dive head-first into the world of e-cigarettes to discover what all the underground buzz is about. Here, a complete guide to e-cigarettes, smoking of the future.

Parts and terminology

E-cigarettes, which are essentially miniature smoke machines like the kind you’ll find in a night club, have a number of different parts, the quality and style of which determine the kind of e-cigarette smoking experience you’ll have. The e-cigarette world also has a number of unique terms. Knowing the parts of the device and the related terms can help you figure out which e-cigarette is right for you.

Main parts:

e-cigarette-battery-rpBattery: Arguably the most important component of the e-cigarette is the rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which is the largest part of every e-cigarette. The size and voltage output of the battery governs both how long you can “vape” — the term for “smoking” an e-cigarette — before re-charging, and plays a significant role in how much vapor your e-cigarette creates.

Cartomizer: The cartomizer is the other essential element of e-cigarettes. The cartomizer, which screws on to the end of the battery, is where you put your mouth. The cartomizer contains a cotton-like material, which holds the “e-liquid,” and a heating element (the “atomizer”), which boils the e-liquid, creating the vapor. When e-cigarettes first hit the market, cartomizers were divided into two parts, the atomizer and the cartridge. Combining these two parts was one of the primary advancements in e-cigarette technology.e-cig-cartomizer-rp

E-liquid: E-liquid is made primarily from propylene glycol, which is used in everything from asthma inhalers to deodorant. E-liquid is often mixed with a number of other ingredients, including various potencies of nicotine. This is what you “smoke,” and is used to refill the cartomizers. Any e-liquid can be used to refill any cartomizer, though not all cartomizers will fit all batteries. E-liquid come in a wide range of flavors, ranging from those that roughly mimic the flavor of different brands of cigarettes to flavors like grape, watermelon and atomic fireball.

Other parts and terms:

PCC: The portable charging case, or PCC, is basically just a case that contains a larger lithium-ion battery, to which your e-cigarette battery can attach, and recharge. PCCs make it more convenient for keeping all your e-cigarette batteries charged when on the go.

LED: At the end of many e-cigarettes is an LED, which lights up in a way that more or less mimics the cherry of a tobacco cigarette. Nowadays, these LEDs come in a wide range of colors, including white, blue, yellow, orange and green.

Starter kits: Most e-cigarette companies offer some type of “starter kit,” and most offer starter kits at multiple price points. The most basic starter kits usually include at least one battery, five pre-filled cartridges and a charger.

How e-cigarettes work

These days, most e-cigarettes have a sensor at the cartomizer end of the battery, which is triggered via pressure applied when taking a drag. The sensor turns on the battery, which engages the heating element (the atomizer) in the cartomizer. The atomizer boils the propylene glycol solution, and creates the vapor. When you stop pulling, the battery turns off, which stops the e-liquid from boiling. Some e-cigarettes have a button, which replaces the sensor. Simply press the button and take a drag.
How to vape

Vaping is designed to mimic smoking a regular cigarette as much as possible; simply suck on the end, and vapor enters your mouth and lungs. Unlike tobacco cigarettes, which produce more smoke the harder you pull, e-cigarettes produce the same amount of vapor whenever the atomizer is turned on. This means that it’s better to pull as slowly as possible to trigger the sensor, which will result in the most amount of vapor.ProVari-5T-rp

When your e-cigarette begins to produce less vapor, either your battery is low on charge, your cartomizer is out of e-liquid, or both. Simply swap in a new battery, or a full cartomizer, and you’ll be back to normal vaping levels. From my experience, the two often run out at about the same time — the length of which is dependent upon the size of the battery — so it’s a safe habit to simply change out both when your vaping begins to weaken.

Most starter kits will run anywhere from $30 to $100, depending on the kit you choose. A pack of five cartomizers will run around $10 to $15. And a bottle of e-liquid, which will last even heavy smokers about a month, costs around $15 to $20. On average, a person who smokes the equivalent of a pack a day can expect to spend around $600 annually, versus the $1,000 to $4,000 it costs to satisfy a pack-a-day habit.

Recommended e-cigarettes

Volt, by Smokeless Image
• Excellent vapor production
• Strong battery life
• Great customer service
• Good e-liquid flavor selection
• Best product overall for the average user
• Poorly constructed PCC
• Lacks the option of a significantly larger battery

V2 cigs
• Great vapor production
• Solid battery life
• Excellent PCC and other accessories
• Slightly less-solid battery construction
• E-liquid flavors aren’t great

TGo, by Apollo
• Excellent battery life
• Great vapor production
• Good e-liquid flavor selection
• Poor customer service

ProVari, by ProVape
• Best battery life
• Adjustable voltage
• Excellent vapor production
• Bulky, bad for portability