Explainer: What are e-cigarettes?

New battery-powered devices deliver nicotine, a dangerous and addictive drug

Electronic cigarettes are billed as a healthier alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes. However, e-cigarettes still expose users to nicotine, the addictive drug also found in tobacco. 


Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-powered electronic devices. They were developed as an alternative to tobacco products, such as cigarettes. Because e-cigarettes lack tobacco — and emit no smoke — the companies that make them have argued their products are safer than cigarettes. Indeed, they were developed as a way to help smokers wean themselves off of tobacco. But while potentially safer than inhaling tobacco smoke, vapors from e-cigarettes are far from harmless, health officials note.

Most e-cigarette vapors contain nicotine. It’s an addictive and potentially dangerous drug. So users can become dependent on e-cigarettes much as smokers become addicted to tobacco.

Instead of burning tobacco, a small battery inside an e-cigarette heats a liquid solution to create an aerosol spray. It emerges like a mist. This is what the user inhales. It’s not smoke, as nothing burned.

E-cigarette companies call this aerosol a vapor. As a result, users refer to their puffing on e-cigarettes as vaping. The solution used to create that vapor contains various ingredients. These can include flavors that sometimes resemble fruits, candy, tobacco, mint or even chocolate. Many appeared designed to appeal to kids.

In fact, as of 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported data indicating that 11.3 percent of U.S. high-school students and 2.8 percent of middle-school students had vaped. Vaping was more popular among these age groups than was smoking. Vaping was also more popular among these kids than in adults.

E-cigarettes have long been considered a type of tobacco product. The reason: Most vaped liquids contain nicotine. And that drug was initially derived from tobacco plants. Still, it was not until 2016 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given permission to control vape products through its long-standing laws over tobacco products.

On January 2, 2020, FDA then moved to ban U.S. sales of prefilled cartridge e-cigarettes in any flavor other than tobacco or menthol. This was aimed at reducing vaping’s appeal to kids. The agency later banned certain companies from selling unauthorized youth-appealing flavored e-liquids.

Some makers of vape products and liquids attempted to avoid FDA rules for e-cigarettes by now using lab-made nicotine. They argued their goods were no longer “tobacco products.” On April 14, 2022, FDA closed this loophole in its regulations. Its laws now cover vape liquids using synthetic nicotine, too.

NOTE: This story has been updated to cover emerging U.S. regulatory policy and recent statistics on use.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Health & Medicine