E-Cig Explosions: We Can’t Ignore This Anymore
A woman in Atlanta says her electronic cigarette blew up this week while charging. A fire marshal in Binghamton, NY says a fire last week was started by a charging electronic cigarette. Stories like these are peppering local news stations across the U.S. almost weekly nowadays. By comparison to the number of electronic cigarettes on the market, these stories are rare, but they are still too common to continue writing off as nothing.
As regulators continue to focus in on the potential damage a vapor nicotine delivery device can do to an individual’s ongoing health, it’s becoming more and more apparent that they are focusing on the wrong dangers. The electronic cigarette industry, the academic community, and public health experts around the world continue to argue that electronic cigarettes aren’t that dangerous to user’s health. And they’re mostly proving to be right (more on that here).
Still, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is focusing on the damage use might do. They argue that we don’t know enough to allow free use of the product and drive toward harsh regulations under the guise of protecting public health. What they’re rapidly doing instead is finding ways to impede a promising new smoking alternative and smokers who could otherwise transition away from smoking with e-cig from doing so. In essence, they’re hurting public health. And they aren’t even looking into the most obvious aspect of electronic cigarettes that people should be worrying about.
The electronic cigarette industry in the U.S. is expected to hit $1.7 billion in sales this year. That’s pretty massive considering most estimates put it around $500 million last year. There has yet to be any serious, substantiated health issues reported from anyone using electronic cigarettes other than a few minor allergic reactions to propylene glycol. In fact, most e-cig users report immediate, short-term, and long-term improvements in their health the longer and more they use electronic cigarettes instead of smoking.
There have, however, been countless claims of catastrophic failure and explosions of the devices. Regulators, the industry, and the community can not afford to down play or ignore this problem. The vast majority of these occurrences tend to fall on one of two things: user error or shoddy (often Chinese-manufactured and direct delivered) devices. Even if every incident can be explained away as someone else’s problem, the issue at large gives a very bad name to the industry.
The earliest and most public of these explosions happened in Florida in 2012 when a man using inappropriate batteries in a poorly constructed custom device lost all his teeth and part of his tongue. Further investigation into the incident may have revealed that the man was using a device that was built to fail, but this got the industry and community started assuming fault with the user and not the device or the manufacturer.
The woman in Atlanta was using a Chinese-made e-Hit (pictured), which may sound like something cheap and risky, but it doesn’t look all that different from other rechargeable battery devices on the market. Maybe, just maybe, this is something the industry will have to look into.
According to some analysts, the electronic cigarette industry may well surpass the tobacco cigarette market in the next 10 years. That would make it something of a $50 billion industry (give or take a lot of rough math). If at $1.7 billion, we see 1 incident every 2 weeks in the U.S. of e-cig failure resulting in injury or property damage, then at $50 billion, that could be upwards of 8,00 to 1,000 incidents a year. These are by no means official figures, and this may not sound like much, but no one wants to be on the receiving end of an e-cig explosion.
Electronic cigarettes will likely get safer as manufacturing processes improve and consumers begin to recognize safe products and avoid shoddy ones. The days of instant internet community outrage and company brand and PR spinning make reasonable dialogue on topics like this rather difficult. What this writer is trying to drive at is that ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away and certainly doesn’t help the industry grow into a responsible member of the business community.
It’s certainly understandable that electronic cigarette companies don’t even want to suggest that their products could explode. Even suggesting that their products don’t explode suggests that other products do and that their’s might. But you also don’t inspire the kind of responsible use or respect for an electronic device among users if you don’t clearly say “Hey knucklehead! Be careful with this thing. It isn’t a toy. It can explode.”
The danger of explosion isn’t enough to remove some products from the market after all. Fireworks are made to explode and they’re still on the market. In 2012, there were an estimated 8,700 injuries treated in emergency rooms and at least 6 deaths in the U.S. from fireworks. Yet, as a recreational device, a firework is legal in a number of states and adults (for the most part) know that they take a risk every time they use one.
Electronic cigarettes really aren’t much different and are probably much safer. As a recreational device (and that’s what this writer believes they should be viewed as), e-cigs should be free to be used by adults as long as companies work to minimize risk and make clear any risks that remain.
Regulators have a responsibility to the public to protect it. If we know individuals have been injured by explosion and have yet to see a single correlation between internal health risks and e-cig use, shouldn’t they focus on the more clear and present danger? Even ignoring the moral obligation of a company to sell safe products to its consumers, isn’t it in a company’s best interest to sell a device that won’t ruin their good name and future income by exploding?
As a high-tech electronic device, there will almost certainly be a risk of catastrophic failure no matter how good the product is. It seems unlikely the risk will ever be zero. But that’s the case with everything. Conventional cigarettes have always carried the inherent risk of fire. Risk is a part of every choice we make. Do mob bosses not use pillows for fear they’ll be smothered in their sleep with them?
Electronic cigarettes are proving to be a useful thing for most any smoker. They do carry risks. Those risks don’t go away by coming up with excuses for why they are there or ignoring them. We don’t do anyone a service by snuffing out information that could help snuff out the problem. How we deal with this problem as it grows and inevitable becomes a much more spotlight issue will determine the character of the industry and will make it look good or very, very bad.