I bought my first e-cigarette around 24 August 2015, about 2 to 3 weeks ago, in a small tobacco shop in a tiny town in the French Vosges mountains. I have no idea what make or brand it is (I threw away the package right away), and at first, I had no idea how to use it. There was no manual that came with it. There were no people around me who had experience with e-cigs, and I was even to lazy to browse online for some guides, so I simply figured everything out myself.
I should mention that I’m a non-smoker, always have been. I did try to pull on a cigarette a few times, but it just made me cough violently, and I was never motivated to explore this further. I could never even smoke joints with others when they would be passed around, as the tobacco would just give me a painful coughing fit and none of the cannabis ingredients would ever reach my system. (I was able to smoke pure-weed joints [with less coughing], or ones made with peppermint tea instead of tobacco [almost cough-free], or anything that filtered the smoke, such as shishas, or devices that did not produce as much actual combustion products such as vaporisers [no coughing!].)
When e-cigarettes appeared (initially around 2004, but I hadn’t heard of them until a couple of years later), I became immediately intrigued. A new method to smoke without the toxic, hurtful smoke? Count me in! But the whole idea of smoking never had been so appealing to me that I sought out an e-cig supplier right away. The possibility slumbered along in the back of my mind until this day on a sunny hillside in northeastern France, when it suddenly struck me: hey, e-cigs still exist! I’ve been wanting to try them out, haven’t I? Why not now? But I was in the middle of nowhere.
The next time we went down to the next town to buy some groceries, I went into the little tobacco store, not expecting much, but surprisingly, they had a very small selection of electronic smoking equipment. There were a few throw-away e-cigs already pre-configured with nicotine-containing fluid. I didn’t want to get hooked on nicotine right away, so those were out. The other two options had tanks to be filled with fluid to be bought separately. The shopkeeper quickly removed the cheaper of the two, telling me something about them not working properly, at least that is how much I understood with my less-than perfect French (only later did the question occur to me that if they weren’t working right, then why were they still on display in his shop?). He gave me a package of the only remaining option, of which he had three left. The one he gave me had already been opened at the back, which I noticed and mentioned, but he then told me a few things of which I only got fragments, and I was really too tired to argue, so I bought it, even though it was pretty obvious that he was scamming me, if only a little. But I was in no mood for fighting, and I really, really wanted to try out an e-cig.
I still had to get some smoking fluid, or e-liquid, as they call it, and he had a display with various options, all from the same French brand, Conceptarôme. I knew I didn’t want any nicotine in it, so that left only two options, orange flavour, and some other flavour that I don’t remember and that didn’t sound very appealing. I went with the orange, which turned out to be not the best choice as it tastes very artificial and »cheap«, but I couldn’t have known. The bottle, of 10 millilitres, claims to contain »vegetable grade« glycerin as well as »food flavouring«. From previous research, I knew that the liquids are usually based on propylene glycol (which is 1,2-Propanediol) and was slightly irritated to see glycerin, but I figured they know what they are doing. I ended up paying around 35 euros for the e-cig and another 5 for the liquid. Probably way too much, but I didn’t know and I didn’t care.
So back at our place I now had this thing and no idea how to operate it. It took me quite a bit of fiddling until I found out that it could be taken apart in several places, giving me the following parts as seen in the photo (back row, left to right): mouthpiece, heating element assembly, seal connector, tank; and the battery and electronics assembly in front, which also serves as the »grip« or holder and features a small button to turn on the heating element, during which the button will light up white. The names of the pieces are not the official ones (if such names exist), but my own, and are still only based on my speculation as to what they really do, but I think I’m close enough.
The »seal connector« is screwed onto the battery grip and seems to provide both the electrical connection between the power source and the heating element, and a seal to prevent fluid to leak out into the electrical parts. The heating element assembly is then screwed onto the inner thread on the seal connector. The tank goes onto the seal connector’s outer thread. At this point, the tank can be filled with liquid. Finally, the mouthpiece is screwed into the thinner opening of the tank. To clean the e-cig, I’ve been taking the whole thing apart and flushed it all thoroughly with water (excluding the battery grip, of course). I’m uncertain if the heating element assembly should be flushed with water as I’m afraid the heating element itself may not be stainless, but I guess it’s ok.
Not shown in the image is a small plastic charging connector that has an opening for the battery grip to be screwed in on the one side, and a standard USB connector on the other. You can plug into any USB power source to recharge the battery. When charging begins, the white LED inside the battery grip’s button flashes a few times, and another LED on the charging connector lights up. I’ve recharged the battery a few times already, although I don’t think I’ve never nearly so much as emptied it, and this took little time, probably less than an hour or even half an hour.
(By the way, if you can identify the make and model of this e-cig I bought, please drop me a quick notice via the comments, thank you very much!)
Update: It’s a NEO1, which I seem to find only on French-language websites. At 35 Euros, I got ripped off pretty badly by the vendor, since this online-shop has them for 10 €. Well, I guess that makes mine all the more special.
Now onto the smoking itself. The liquid is poured into the tank, which is graduated from 0.2 to 1.6 ml and can be read in steps of 0.1 ml. As I bought 10 ml of liquid, I would be able to fill the tank up to the 1.6 ml mark just over six times, but I never filled it more than up to around 1 ml. When smoking, liquid is consumed, and you can check your »progress« by looking at the graduation. It turns out that the liquid level must not fall below a certain point, but I’ll get back to that later.
As to the liquids: if you look online for a bit, you can find an overwhelmingly large choice. You can choose from at least two basic solvents, the aforementioned propylene glycol, or glycerin, or possibly mixtures of both; a myriad of flavours (aromas), some of which imitate fruity or herbal scents, and some that appear to mimic the complex flavours of actual tobacco (available in a large variety of blends) as you would get from a regular cigarette. You can nearly always choose from a wide range of nicotine content, starting from no nicotine at all up to very strong concentrations.
You can either buy pre-blended mixtures or make your own from the individual ingredients. Basically, you have complete control over what you will be smoking, something that is all but impossible with regular smoking material, and which makes the whole e-smoking thing very appealing to me. On the other hand, I can see how traditional smokers may be put off by all of this, probably considering it somewhat »unnatural«, »artificial« and »synthetic«, which it is without doubt.
(Just in the unlikely case that you aren’t aware: be careful with pure nicotine, as it is a very strong poison, not disregarding its very pronounced habit-forming powers. Its lethal dose for humans is in the range of 0.5 to 15 mg per kg of body weight, depending on source cited, which means that anything between around 35 mg up to 1 g of pure nicotine can – will – kill a 75 kg person.)
So I figured out how to assemble the thing and how to fill it with liquid. I now had to learn how to smoke. I knew that there are e-cigs that activate automatically as soon as you pull on them. This one didn’t: I had to push the little white button. But do I push the button first, then release, then pull? Or do I pull and then push the button? Or both at the same time? As my experimentation went, the practical method is to push the button as soon as you start pulling in air from the mouthpiece. You can keep pushing the button as long as you pull, but my e-cig will turn off automatically after a few seconds, apparently to protect the heating element from overheating.
There are quite a number of ways to breathe in and out using this thing. (Remember, I had to learn all of this anew as I’m a non-smoker.) I found it very interesting to experiment with this, as it made the various passages of air in my body quite »tangible« for me for the first time. You can suck air in using mostly your mouth (by creating a vacuum), or with your lungs (the vacuum being caused by your diaphragm moving downwards), or a combination of the two. You actually have very fine control of how much (what volume) of air you suck in, and how fast, although it seriously takes a bit of practice until you work out all the subtleties if you’ve never done it consciously before.
When you breathe in while the heating element is working (you’re pressing the button), the liquid is heated and evaporated, and smoke forms. Actually, it’s not actually smoke, as nothing is burned, which is the one fact that makes e-cigarettes quite interesting as opposed to regular smoking. What’s created is a vapour cloud of the solvent, which drags the other ingredients (flavours, nicotine) along with it, where it may reach its destination. That’s why users call it »vaping« to differentiate it from »smoking«.
Again, there are many different things you can do with the vapour once it forms while you are pulling in air. You can keep it in your mouth and throat, closing the passage to your lungs. You can pull it deep down right to the bottom of your lungs. Or anything inbetween. A method I’ve found that’s not news to any smoker is that you can first pull in some smoke while breathing in, but then turn off the e-cig (and remove it from your mouth altogether), while still sucking in air, giving you a mixture of vapour and air that is very comfortable to inhale very deeply.
As to breathing out, there are so many options as well. The first few days, I was just playing around with all the various little »techniques«, and I was having so much fun doing it, I was almost getting a bit of bad conscience: am I really having this much fun with this little toy? This is great!
I found that if I inhaled the vapour not very deeply (keeping it mostly in my mouth cavity), I could produce very large clouds of »smoke« on exhaling. The amount of vapour produced, in turn, seems to depend mainly on the rate of pulling while the e-cig is on. Pulling slowly, but for a long time, produces the largest amount of vapour. If I inhale very deeply, right to the base of my lungs, I can’t seem to be able to exhale a lot of vapour, which must mean that most of the vapour is absorbed in my lungs, the health effects of which I’m not sure about.
Except for a certain situation where it turns acrid, which I’ll get back to further down, the vapour never caused any irritation at all to me. It is extremely gentle, almost soothing, not causing any urge to cough whatsoever. As to the taste – well, that depends mainly on the composition of the liquid. My liquid is nicotine-free and contains orange flavour. I am not particularly happy with the orange flavour, as it tastes similar to what you would find in the cheapest fruit-flavoured sweets. It tastes synthetic and »chemical«, and while it can be recognised as orangey, it has little to do with the wonderful complexity of real orange flavour. I do not recommend it at all.
So what’s that vapour actually made of? As the heating element does not reach temperatures that cause anything to get actually burned, and probably, thermally decomposed, the vapour must consist of the unaltered solvent. That is, I’m breathing glycerin vapours. This then made we wonder how this rather beautiful soft white »smoke« is formed. It must be that the finely dispersed glycerin condenses immediately on exhale, forming tiny droplets. So would I able to use pure water as liquid base as well? What’s the difference? (If anyone can elaborate on the choice of glycerin or propylene glycol as e-liquid base, I’d love to get some feedback.) I have tried to vape pure water, which was unsuccessful. Mixtures of my glycerine-based liquid with some added water did work, but I needed to suck air in much harder, and the heating element would make unusual noises, so I guess water is not something that belongs in e-cig tanks.
Neither neat glycerin nor propylene glycol are hazardous to a degree that needs attention. For all I know, clean glycerin (free from by-products) is, for all practical purposes, completely non-toxic. However, I’m not entirely convinced that what one breathes in after it has passed the heating element is still pure solvent plus aroma plus optionally nicotine. I can imagine that the heating element may heat up to higher-than-expected temperatures locally, causing some chemical changes to take place, so what one is breathing in my not be totally hazard-free.
I’d be very interested to see a proper analysis of the vapour produced by e-cigs, under various conditions (such as different volumes of airstream passing the heating element at different speeds), using various combinations of base solvent, flavours and nicotine. What’s really in the vapour? Small traces of formaldehyde would appear a likely candidate, and it would be important to see what those levels are (update: quite a lot of data can be found under the link above). Vaping may be several orders of magnitude less toxic on the breathing apparatus than regular smoking, but is completely hazard-free? I’d doubt it. Since vaping is a relatively new development, we may not see any health effects (expected or not) until a few more years or decades pass.
Specifically, I found that the vapour would at some point always suddenly begin to taste very acrid, reminding me of burnt rubber. I had been wondering what caused this. At first, I suspected that somehow the rubber o-rings used as seals in the e-cigs parts would become too hot after some time of using the device, giving off acrid and probably toxic gases. Yesterday, as I was using the e-cig for the first time in about a week, I finally realised what must be happening. When the liquid level falls below a certain point, a part of the heating element is no longer submerged in liquid, causing it to overheat in the area that is exposed to air instead of liquid. At the transition, some of the liquid will thus be heated to much higher temperatures than what it is designed for.
When using glycerin as a solvent, this causes small amounts of acrolein to form, a known thermal decomposition product of glycerin and natural fats and oils (which are esters of fatty acids and glycerin). Not only is acrolein very reactive and as such, very toxic and corrosive, it also exhibits much of the smell characteristics of something that has been overheated to the point of thermal breakdown. The pungent stench of overheated (burnt) fat, burning rubber, as well as the burning scent of a candle that has just been blown out, are all, to a great degree, to blame on the formation of acrolein. Now that I realise I have inhaled quite a fair share of this toxic substance, I will be careful to keep enough liquid in the tank! Only today, as I am writing this article, did I notice that the heating element assembly has a little groove (ring) right in the spot where the problems begin if tank contents fall below it. I, being a fool, hadn’t noticed it before.
The heating element, or atomizer, as it’s »officially« known, is still a bit of a mystery to me. From what I gather, it is apparently nothing but a simple coil of wire that is heated by ohmic resistance. This would make it very important to control the voltage and current flowing through the coil to regulate the temperature that will be reached. Indeed, a number of e-cigs actually allow individual control of voltage and current. Also, the material from which the coil is made would be quite an important point, as it’s the single part in the whole assembly that is physically strained the most. If it’s not the right material, it may (eventually) give off possibly toxic vapours, it may corrode, it may chemically react with components of the liquid, etc. I’m trusting that the manufacturers of e-cigs have this figured out, but it leaves me with a hint of worry. From my »acrolein experience« detailed above, it follows that hazards are around the corner if the e-cig is not operated properly.
When reading up on e-cigs, I came across the mention of piezo heating elements. If I caught this correctly, the atomizer in that case would not use ohmic resistance but the piezo effect to create heat. It seems to be the safer alternative, but I have not followed up on this. Update: I re-read the passage and I saw where I got confused. The original inventor had thought of using a piezo element to create ultrasound that would vaporise the liquid, but then turned to simple ohmic heating using a coil of wire. I was actually thinking of a Peltier heat pump (not piezo) that can be used to both heat or cool a substance. I had mixed up piezo and peltier in my head; piezo elements do not directly affect temperature.
Why use an e-cig? For me, as of now, it’s still a fascinating toy. I found something new to play with, and even just trying to make big clouds of vapour and blowing them around is endless fun. (I read people even do this as a kind of sporting challenge, called cloud-chasing, and there are competitions, and »professional vapers« are a thing! People are weird, but fun.) I got to know my airways much better. I know how many different ways my body has to control the flow and concentration of air (and vapours) in various parts such as my mouth, throat and lungs. And I realised that just the act of smoking in itself is addictive, because it’s so fun, and you always have something in your hands that you can occupy yourself with. I couldn’t put my toy down for many hours, and I have never had a molecule of nicotine in it.
Since the vaping material is a liquid, there are practically no limits to what you can put in it. You can experiment quite freely. At one time, we added a few drops of lavender essential oil, so I vaped lavender. It was fun. Of course, it’s probably not a good idea to just vape everything you can get your hands on – there are quite a few substances that should really not enter your lungs – so common sense should be used at all times.
I am going to be playing a lot more with this fun invention, possibly buying a few more devices and trying out as many different e-liquids as I can, should my budget permit it. For now, I am not going to touch nicotine, as I’ve experienced its tremendous addictive potential just from snorting a decoction of tobacco leaves a few times within a shamanic ritual. This thing already has everything to get me hooked even without the nicotine, so I must be careful.
A new article will on vaping will follow as soon as I have learned a great deal more.
(Small update: I tried making my own e-liquid yesterday, using 85% glycerin (remainder is water) bought from a cosmetics store. After some gurgling noises, the atomizer seemed to accept this very viscous clear liquid, and large clouds of smoke could be produced. As there was no longer any flavourant present, the taste was unappealing. I added a drop of propylene glycol to see how this would affect the vaping but found nothing special (other than the mixture becoming a little less viscous). I then added a drop of home-made natural vanilla extract (ethanol/water based) as flavour. Not only did this taste much better than the artificial orange flavour, it also added a pleasant smokey note to the taste, next to the sweetness. I presume that the smokey flavour stems from either guaiacol or syringol present in natural vanilla flavour; both these substances and vanillin are structurally very related.)
If you’re as new to vaping as me, and particulary if you’re very experienced with this subject matter, I would very much appreciate your feedback. If there are errors in my findings, please correct me. Just add a comment. Thank you!