The Myth of the Green Cigarette

The FDA warns consumers about e-cigarettes, which are often marketed as "green."


Cigarettes are the most-polluted item in the world, so needless to say, smoking is not very green. Considering that only 10 percent of cigarettes are disposed of properly, any effort to reduce the amount of waste caused by smokers is a good thing, right? That's the thinking behind makers of several brands of e-cigarettes - a trendy new smoking alternative that dispenses nicotine through vapor, rather than smoke, in a reusable, odorless cigarette-like device. E-cigarette users can "smoke" indoors without affecting others. They never need a lighter, and prevent hundreds of butts from being stubbed out on the pavement, since the device uses rechargeable batteries and refillable cartridges.

Totally green smoking is too good to be true. Turns out, the electronic smokes - which are marketed on several websites as healthier than real cigarettes - can be as harmful as traditional kind. According to an FDA press release

Because these products have not been submitted to the FDA for evaluation or approval, at this time the agency has no way of knowing, except for the limited testing it has performed, the levels of nicotine or the amounts or kinds of other chemicals that the various brands of these products deliver to the user.

The FDA’s Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis analyzed the ingredients in a small sample of cartridges from two leading brands of electronic cigarettes. In one sample, the FDA’s analyses detected diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze that is toxic to humans, and in several other samples, the FDA analyses detected carcinogens, including nitrosamines. These tests indicate that these products contained detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed.

The harmful chemicals aren't the only reason for the warning. “The FDA is concerned about the safety of these products and how they are marketed to the public,” said Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., commissioner of food and drugs. The e-cigarettes are sold in malls, and the flavored nicotine may entice kids. They're also touted as "healthy," "green," and "environmental." But with the wallop of chemicals inside and the battery that will find its way to a landfill, environmentally-aware smokers are trading one bad habit for another.

Traditional cigarettes, too, will tout their green credentials. American Spirit brand uses USDA-certified organic tobacco, avoiding the pesticides that other growers use (tobacco farmers use 27 million pounds of pesticides each year). American Spirit is owned by Reynolds American, though, which diminishes its green cred.

So is there an eco-friendly way to smoke? In addition to the litter, Slate's Green Lantern urges you to consider the air pollution:

The global tobacco industry manufactures roughly 5.5 trillion cigarettes annually. Assuming that all those cancer sticks get consumed, smokers around the world spew out about 84,878 tons of fine particulate matter annually, or a little less than half of a year's worth of emissions from American on-road vehicles.

So to answer that question: no. Whether or not the well-being of the planet provides any additional motivation, it's time to quit for the sake of your own health. More on smoking here.

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