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The future of smoking: E-cigarettes explained

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

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
• Some report customer service issues (though others say Apollo has the best customer service)

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

Image used with permission by copyright holder


The most significant downside to e-cigarettes, in terms of user experience, is managing the charging of the batteries, which is done using either a USB, wall or car charger, or PCC. Most users will need to purchase at least two batteries to keep up their e-cigarette habit. I’d recommend buying three. That way you’ll have one in use, one charged and ready to go and one charging. 

Another downside is availability. Your local gas station or convenience store probably doesn’t sell quality e-cigarette products. Sure, they might have one of the disposable e-cigarettes. But those products are so sub-par, it would be unfair to compare them to the many superior options available. Because of this, you’re going to have to order your e-cigarettes, and the required paraphernalia, online. And that means waiting at least a couple of days — a unacceptably long time, if you’re jonesing for a puff.

Last but not least is the fact that smoking an e-cigarette can draw a lot of attention. Vaping while in public is kind of like riding down the street on a Segway. People stare; it takes a minute for them to figure out what the hell you’re doing. And once they do, they don’t quite know what to make of it.


From my experience, the benefits of e-cigarettes over traditional cigarettes are nearly limitless. The main upsides are no alienating smell, no tar, and only a fraction of the other unhealthy chemicals that are found in most factory cigarettes. You can smoke them almost anywhere, including bars, restaurants and (if you’re discreet about it) airplanes. And, if you really want to ditch your nicotine addiction altogether, they can serve as an excellent stepping stone.

A fantastic upside to e-cigarettes is that you can vape as little or as much as you like. With tobacco cigarettes, there is often the desire to smoke an entire cigarette in one go. With e-cigarettes, you can take a couple of puffs, pop the thing in your pocket, and go about your day. Or, you can sit in your office, living room, or den, and “chain smoke” your e-cigarette without stinking up the place. 

The transition from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigarettes was, for me, seamless. After I received the first test units, I never went back. Yes, there is the lingering bug in your brain that wants a “real” cigarette — at first. But that feeling quickly succumbs to the sheer awesomeness of this new, way-better, device.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Also, if you’re a fan of science-fiction, as I am, then you will, at some point, likely experience the fantastically surreal feeling that you’re living in the pages of a futuristic Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel, which alone make the whole thing worth it.

Health risks

This, of course, is the elephant in the room. Fortunately, it looks as though it’s a very tiny elephant. First, the bad news: The US Food and Drug Administration and other public health organizations are adamantly against e-cigarettes. The FDA says that e-cigarettes “may contain ingredients that are known to be toxic to humans.” In other words, quitting smoking — or vaping — entirely is the best course of action. And it is. Your best bet, health-wise, is to stop inhaling anything but air right now.

Another gripe the FDA has with e-cigarettes is that they could become a “gateway” for youngsters, which seems a perfectly reasonable complaint to me.

All that said, there are other reputable sources, as The New York Times reports, which firmly show that e-cigarettes are a far lesser evil than tobacco products. According to the Harm Reduction Journal, the toxicity levels of e-cigarettes detected by the FDA “are highly unlikely to have any possible significance to users” because the unhealthy chemicals detected in e-cigarettes are at “about one million times lower concentrations than are conceivably related to human health.” This conclusion is shared by other researchers, including professor Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health (pdf). And, according to the Journal of Public Health, e-cigarettes are “much safer than tobacco cigarettes,” and are equally as unhealthy as “conventional nicotine replacement products,” like nicotine gum or patches.

All that said, the jury is still out on the repercussions of vaping with e-cigarettes, so don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a consequences-free alternative. It may very well be, but the lack of evidence requires diligent users to err on the side of caution.


If you haven’t already figured out, I am a fan of e-cigarettes. Since I began using them, I haven’t smoked a single tobacco cigarette, and aside from the first 24 hours, I haven’t had the desire to, either. I have, however, been vaping my e-cigarettes often — more often than I was smoking regular cigarettes. Because of this, I cannot recommend e-cigarettes as a way to quit smoking. Instead, I recommend them as a way to keep smoking — but with what appears to be a significantly lower health risk. I found e-cigarettes to be more enjoyable, and more satisfying, than tobacco cigarettes, due to the fact that I felt better than when I smoked tobacco cigarettes, and I never smelled like the bottom of a bus station ash tray.

Still, the lingering possibility that inhaling e-liquid vapor is bad for you cannot be ignored. But if the choice is between a tobacco cigarette, and an e-cigarette, your best bet is on the e-cigarette, every time.

Updated with additional information about Apollo e-cigarette customer service on 11/14

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Andrew Couts
Former Digital Trends Contributor
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