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What's the Difference Between a Traditional and Electronic Cigarette?

A traditional cigarette contains tobacco and is ignited by a match or lighter. This type of product creates both firsthand smoke (inhaled by the smoker) and secondhand smoke (inhaled by others.)

An electronic cigarette looks like a traditional cigarette, but it is operated by batteries. It contains nicotine but no tobacco and does not create smoke or ash. A heating element warms a liquid containing water, nicotine, propylene glycol and flavoring until it forms a vapor.

Why Do People Use E-Cigarettes?

Smokers switch to these products for a variety of reasons.

A study published in February 2012 in the Expert Review of Respiratory Medicine discusses reasons why smokers consider switching to e-cigs.

Where Can I Smoke These?

In more places than you can smoke traditional cigarettes. Most no-smoking laws were not drafted with these new products in mind.

"Unless your local smoke-free law defines 'smoking' to include e-cigarette use, the use of this product may be legal in places where smoking cigarettes is prohibited," according to Change Lab Solutions, a website devoted to public health issues.

The U.S. Department of Transportation says federal laws against smoking on airplanes apply to e-cigarettes. The DOT's interpretation of the law could face a court challenge. Some cities and states have enacted or considered changes to their smoking laws to include these product types. New Jersey, for example, restricts the use of electronic cigarettes in workplaces and indoor public places, according to Change Lab Solutions.

Are Electronic Cigarettes Safer than Traditional Cigarettes?

Because they are not ignited, they do not pose the fire safety hazards of traditional cigarettes. Smoking traditional cigarettes is the leading cause of home fire deaths, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Most of the known health dangers of traditional cigarettes are associated with tobacco and smoke.

E-cigarettes do not contain tobacco or emit smoke; however, they are considered a tobacco product and health risks of using these products have not been fully studied.

They provide an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes. If you are thinking about switching for health reasons, talk to your doctor.

An article published in the September 2012 issue of Addiction, calls for a balanced perspective about e-cigarettes:

"The harms have tended thus far to be overstated relative to the potential benefits. In particular: concern over repeated inhalation of propylene glycol is not borne out by toxicity studies with this compound; risk of accidental poisoning is no different from many household devices and chemicals available in supermarkets; concern that e-cigarettes may promote continued smoking by allowing smokers to cope with no-smoking environments is countered by the observation that most smokers use these products to try to quit and their use appears to enhance quitting motivation; concerns over low nicotine delivery are countered by evidence that the products provide significant craving reduction despite this in some cases; and e-cigarettes may help reduce toxin exposure to non-smokers," wrote Theodore Wagener, lead author and assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.