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What are E-cigs and how do they work?

An electronic cigarette or "e-cigarette" is an alternative to smoked tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. It is a battery-powered device that provides inhaled doses of nicotine by delivering a vaporized propylene glycol/nicotine solution. In addition to nicotine delivery, this vapor also provides a flavor and physical sensation similar to that of inhaled tobacco smoke, while no tobacco, smoke, or combustion is actually involved in its operation.

The electronic cigarette usually takes the form of some manner of elongated tube, though many are designed to resemble the outward appearance of real smoking products, like cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. A common design is also the "pen-style", so named for its visual resemblance to a ballpoint pen. A new design has the exactly the same size of an ordinary cigarette.


When a user inhales through the device, air flow is detected by a sensor, which activates a heating element that vaporizes a nicotine solution stored in the mouthpiece. It is this vapor that is inhaled by the user. An LED on the opposite end of the device is also activated during inhalation, which serves as an indicator of use, and also to simulate the glow of actual burning tobacco.


A disassembled cigarette-shaped electronic cigarette. A. LED light cover B. battery (also houses circuitry) C. atomizer D. cartridge.

While electronic cigarettes take many forms, they each generally employ the same basic components: a mouthpiece, a heating element, a rechargeable battery, and various electronic circuits. A number of disposable electronic cigarettes have been developed, including products by Gamucci Ltd and Ruyan.

Mouthpiece ("cartridge")

The mouthpiece is a small disposable plastic cup affixed to the end of the tube. Inside, the piece contains an absorbent material that is moistened with a flavored propylene glycol/nicotine liquid solution. The mouthpiece is referred to in the industry as a "cartridge". When the liquid in the cartridge has been depleted, it can either be refilled by the user, or replaced with another pre-filled cartridge.

Heating element ("atomizer")

The heating element serves to vaporize the liquid in the mouthpiece so that it can be inhaled. This component is referred to in the industry as an "atomizer".

Battery and electronics

Most electronic cigarettes employ a lithium-ion rechargeable battery to power the heating element. Battery life varies depending on the battery type and size, frequency of use, and operating environment. Many different battery charger types are available, such as wall outlet, car, and USB. The battery is generally the largest component of an electronic cigarette.

Electronic cigarettes require an electronic airflow sensor. Various other electronic circuits are usually employed as well, such as a timed cutoff switch to prevent overheating, and an LED to signal activation of the device. An orange-colored light is often chosen for its visual resemblance to actual burning tobacco in the front of the cigarette.

While some larger electronic cigarette models employ an independently replaceable standard-size battery cell, many models are too small to house a standard-size cell and instead require a proprietary component made by the electronic cigarette manufacturer. For those models, the battery and electronic components are housed within a single replaceable part, which is generally referred to in the industry simply as the "battery" even though it actually contains many other components as well.

Nicotine solution

Liquid nicotine solution, or "eLiquid" for electronic cigarettes is available in a variety of different flavors and nicotine concentrations. Nicotine concentrations range from high doses (to mimic the content of regular cigarettes) to midrange and low doses (that mimic the nicotine content of "light" and "ultralight" cigarettes). Solutions are also available without any nicotine or without propylene glycol at all.

Some flavor varieties attempt to resemble traditional cigarette types, such as regular tobacco and menthol, and some even attempt to mimic specific cigarette brands, such as Marlboro or Camel. Solutions are also available with other flavorings, such as strawberry, orange, mint, vanilla, caramel, coffee.

Health issues

Electronic cigarettes are marketed as a healthier alternative to tobacco smoking, by claiming that most of the harmful material produced by the combustion of tobacco in traditional cigarettes is not present in the atomised liquid of electronic cigarettes. They have also been marketed as a way to keep or curtail an addiction to nicotine.

Toxicological studies of the electronic cigarettes have been conducted, with some reporting that electronic cigarettes are less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes. In September 2008, the World Health Organization issued a release proclaiming that it does not consider the electronic cigarette to be a legitimate smoking cessation aid, stating that to its knowledge, "no rigorous, peer-reviewed studies have been conducted showing that the electronic cigarette is a safe and effective nicotine replacement therapy."

On March 27, 2009, Health Canada issued an advisory against electronic cigarettes. The advisory stated "Although these electronic smoking products may be marketed as a safer alternative to conventional tobacco products and, in some cases, as an aid to quitting smoking, electronic smoking products may pose risks such as nicotine poisoning and addiction."


The first design for an electronic cigarette was developed in China by Hon Lik of Ruyan, and specified the use of ultrasonic technology. That patent is currently pending worldwide. Most electronic cigarettes on the market today use a significantly altered design involving a heating element in place of ultrasonic technology. A patent is pending for Gamucci for a disposable electronic cigarette. However, a number of other companies, including Ruyan, Smart Fixx, and Myvic, are marketing disposable electronic cigarettes.

GreenTech, which operates under the brands of GreenCig or PeP Cigarettes, currently owns patents for a design with the cartridge and atomiser as one unit in China and the USA, and have patents pending across European countries including the UK.


The terms "E-cigarette" and "E-cig" have become a popularized name for electronic cigarette. The reseller "Cixi E-cig" claims that these are their trademarks, however a number of other companies uses these terms to describe their product.

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