So your play needs cigarettes. Aaaah.

In most venues by now, real cigarette smoking is viewed as the next plague. The fear is that lighting a single cigarette for a few seconds in a large, well-ventilated theater, is worse than the constant outpouring of pollution from 250 million cars, 600 coal power plants, and every other industrial process. But I digress.

Even herbal cigarettes are becoming banned in many places; this is due to health reasons, moral hesitance, or simply for the fire hazard. Even if they are permitted, many people dislike them for their “marijuana-y” smell and horrible taste. Enter “e-cigarettes”.

First introduced in 2003, electronic cigarettes (“e-cigarettes”) quickly became popular for theatres stuck between the rock of smoking bans and the hard place of artistic freedom. They completely eliminate the hazard of second-hand smoke (the “smoke” is actually just water vapor), and seem to pose minimal risk to the user. However, because they are so new, our knowledge of them and their effects is in constant flux; a lot has changed just in this past year. Just last week, the FDA was blocked from stopping e-cigarette shipments to the United States. This means that, for now at least, they remain unregulated but legal to use here.

The FDA has been railing against electronic cigarettes since last July, when they released a study. What’s important to take away from their results is not that e-cigarettes are necessarily dangerous, but that their potential dangers are unstudied, and without regulation their ingredients may not be fully disclosed. In one article, we find that:

  • All but one of the cartridges was marked as having no nicotine when they actually contained the addictive substance.
  • The cartridges that were marked as having low, medium, or high amounts of nicotine actually have varying amounts of nicotine.
  • One of the cartridges tested positive for having a toxic antifreeze ingredient, diethylene glycol.
  • The devices were emitting “tobacco-specific nitrosamines which are human carcinogens.”
  • The devices were also emitting tobacco-specific impurities that are suspected of being harmful to humans.

(Health News, FDA Warns Against E-Cigarettes)

When we use e-cigarettes, we choose the “zero-nicotine” cartridges. What’s troubling in this report is that even these might contain nicotine. The danger is not necessarily the nicotine; nicotine is not one of the ingredients in cigarettes which causes cancer, and is not toxic in the amount found in cigarettes (read more about the complicated toxicology of nicotine). The danger comes from the possibility of mislabeled products. An actor on the nicotine patch (or other smoking cessation therapy involving nicotine) who smokes an e-cigarette under the false assumption that it contains no nicotine can overdose. I overdosed when I was on the patch, and it was painful, ugly, and frightening. Secondly, mislabeling the amount of one ingredient draws concern that other, more dangerous ingredients, are left unlisted.

A second article from last July adds:

Scott Ceretta is a respiratory therapist and works with the American Lung Association in Tucson. He explains, “First off is the safety. The manufacturer of this product claim that it’s safe and only has nicotine and doesn’t have the harmful chemicals found in tobacco. But, again, we’ve been lied to before.” Dr. Scott Leischow of the Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson says it’s likely e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes with tobacco. But, he adds they haven’t been adequately tested here. Dr. Leischow tells News 4, “We don’t know, this propylene glycol that the nicotine is mixed in, we don’t know what happens when a person inhales that over a long period of time.”

(KVOA News 4, Investigating the health of e-cigarettes)

Again, it’s not that e-cigarettes are dangerous; but a lack of testing so far cannot prove what effects they have on the human body. You can read the full report of FDA analysis (pdf) for more information which includes a diagram of how an e-cigarette works. They tested the “Njoy e-cigarette” and “Smoking Everywhere Electronic Cigarette” brands.

In response to the FDA’s study, Exponent Health Sciences carried out their own analysis. They found a number of flaws in the study, mostly relating to the amounts of chemicals not listed in the ingredients, and how they relate to FDA-approved nicotine replacement therapy products. In some cases, the disparities between the listed and actual ingredients which caused the FDA such great concern was less severe than in products they actually approve of.  Exponent was commissioned by the Njoy company, but the two companies are separate and discrete entities.

Let’s assume that the labels are correct. How does propylene glycol affect us? Here is an article from 1942:

Propylene glycol is harmless to man when swallowed or injected into the veins. It is also harmless to mice who have breathed it for long periods. But medical science is cautious—there was still a remote chance that glycol might accumulate harmfully in the erect human lungs which, unlike those of mice, do not drain themselves. So last June Dr. Robertson began studying the effect of glycol vapor on monkeys imported from the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Tropical Medicine. So far, after many months’ exposure to the vapor, the monkeys are happy and fatter than ever.

(Time Magazine, Medicine: Air Germicide)

We should of course be skeptical of a science article from 1942. DNA had not even been discovered yet, and cigarettes were still endorsed by doctors. Still, propylene glycol is used in many theatrical fog machines and hazers, and the dangers are known and their use regulated by Actors’ Equity. The concern over propylene glycol in e-cigarettes was described in ACTS FACTS last August after the FDA’s report was released:

Our concern is that, like the theatrical fog machines which also contain propylene glycol, this chemical will dissociate into toxic chemicals do when the e-cigarette heats or burns them. Since good actors can carry off the deception without inhaling, e-cigs still appear safer than real cigarettes for both the smokers and others on stage.

(ACTS FACTS, Monona Rossol, Editor. August 2009. www.artscraftstheatersafety.org)

They then return to my earlier point about accurate labeling:

But these points are moot if Chinese manufacturers cannot assure us that they can keep diethylene glycol and carcinogens out of e-cigs. At this point we have no advice and await further data.


So Equity, for the most part allows them at this point (though some say they’ve had problems).

Since the rules seem to be changing so fast these days, and local laws differ vastly, you can’t be assured of anything. Look at the legal status of e-cigarettes around the world, and you can see how the USA is one of the few countries that still allows them. Also, understand that that list is probably out of date already. Before you drop a hundred or so dollars on an e-cigarette system, check with both your Actors’ Equity representative and production manager whether they are still allowed in your theater for your production. Make sure your actor understands that inhalation is not necessary for the effect and should be limited or avoided as much as possible. Finally, try to find the most reputable brand you can to avoid the problem of dishonest labeling. You should do all this the first time someone mentions they’d like to have one of the characters smoking on stage. For now, as long as we have fog machines, pyrotechnics, flying rigs, stage firearms and other dangerous devices on stage, I believe the monitored use of e-cigarettes can be safely regulated.

16 thoughts on “E-Cigarettes”

  1. There’s more than enough evidence to show that vaping is much less dangerous than smoking. Ecigs have been widely commercially available for over three years now with not one known major health problem.

    There are lots of studies here – http://vapersnetwork.org/node/8

    Pure glycerine diluted a little with distilled water will make vapour in an ecig as will pure propylene glycol, you don’t need nicotine liquid or flavours if you’re worried about unnecessary additives. Propylene glycol is used in asthma inhalers and for patients recovering from lung transplants.

    This is a basic idea of how the liquid can be made so if you’re worried then rinse out the filler in cartridges and put some of your own brew in – http://vapersnetwork.org/forum/showthread.php?tid=49

    Break a leg 😀

  2. I looked into this when a friend of mine bought a e-cigarette to replace his regular cigarette smoking habit. He was saying that it’s better for the health but we were a little skeptical and looked it up. What we came up with was the same thing: unregulated and inconclusive. There seems to be not enough information to confirm what effects it has and so far there’s no regulations on it. I would tend to stay away things that are not regulated (by that I mean actually listing what’s in it, and have an agency testing if what’s labeled is indeed true).

    I am not a smoker, but as for theater use, I don’t think it will make a huge difference. If it’s just for a scene, it’s not that much to smoke even if it’s a real cigarette. But whether the audience will like it or not is another story.

  3. Thanks for the great comments guys. Like I tried to say in the article, I’m not a scientist or a health… guy, so I don’t want to make any judgments on the safety of e-cigarettes; I leave that to Actors’ Equity to determine whether they will allow their actors to use them. I just wanted to point out that without regulation, we can’t necessarily know what is in them. I’m not saying they’re being shipped over here filled with rat poison, or that the discrepancies in their listed ingredients is any worse than regulated products, but when you’re asking someone to inhale something, a little caution isn’t unwarranted.
    In that vein, Kate, thanks for the homemade recipe. Making your own solution goes a long way in ensuring that only propylene glycol is used, and that no nicotine is present. That being said, I need to point out this glaring transgression in your comment:

    Ecigs have been widely commercially available for over three years now with not one known major health problem.

    Mesothelioma appears 20 to 50 years after exposure to asbestos. Lung cancer appears after decades of smoking cigarettes. Three years is next to nothing in determining the long-term effects of a product. No one is arguing that using an e-cigarette once will hurt you; what is being cautioned here is that we don’t know how continual exposure will affect a person over their lifetime. I would also add that while asthma inhalers use propylene glycol, they do not heat it like e-cigarettes do, which is another variable that needs to be studied.

  4. That’s true, we don’t know the long term exposure risks for some things – like pop tarts, nasal sprays, most modern medicines, etc.

    I think the relevant question is not ‘is is safe’ but rather ‘what are the risks likely to be’. Nothing has caused any alarm with toxicology reports that I’m aware of except the trace of ethylene glycol found in one sample by the FDA.

    Standards and quality control are certainly needed but there’s no public benefit in removing this choice from smokers who are most certainly hurting their health.

  5. This article is not about removing e-cigarettes from the market or whether they are more or less dangerous than other things in the world. It is about how a props person should keep up with the latest news to know whether providing e-cigarettes to an actor is still considered safe and within the rules. Smoking is still legal, but banned from most stages, even if the actor is a smoker himself. Tattooing is legal, but you cannot force an actor to be tattooed for a show. Please limit the comments to the use of e-cigarettes in theatrical productions.

  6. I think you’re overlooking the reasons why you’ve discovered opposition to ecigs. In fact they are not intended to be used as theatrical props so the studies you’re quoting are not applicable. A professional risk assessment would be better than taking that stuff out of context.

    Trace amounts of contaminants or whatever are not going to be anything like the concern that prompted the FDA report or the anti vaping sentiment you have referred to in your article. The point of the opposition is to protect people from sustained, prolonged exposure – apparently.

    You’re even maximising the worry about the traces of nicotine in zero nic liquids but are likely getting more from tomatoes or potatoes. Have you worked out the measurements?

    So basically, presenting all the opposition without scale of exposure and comparison with what the devices are intended for leaves them out of context.

    You shouldn’t be expected to inhale anything more dangerous than fresh air for work and that includes no fog machine vapour.

  7. I’m not really sure what it is you’re arguing anymore.
    This blog post was pointing out where e-cigarettes stand in terms of legality and safety, so that when a props master is asked about them, they have at least have a starting point.
    I’m not here to argue science, since science is not something that can change through arguments. I pointed to the most mainstream information out there, since that will affect a prop master’s job the most. If Actors’ Equity decides that e-cigarettes cannot be used by actors, pointing to a forum post on “vapersnetwork.org” that tomatoes contain nicotine will not change that fact.
    It still feels like you do not know why this blog exists and who the audience is. Rather, you seem to pop up on any and every article concerning e-cigarettes and litter the comments with the same stock arguments found all over the “vapers” network.

  8. Bottom line is if the actor has got to smoke let it be the e-cig. It may not be harmless but it’s definitely a better alternative to smoking then the tobacco cigs- hands down!

  9. Gosh Eric, it seems to me that you’re not interested in facts – just like the people who oppose vaping because they’re being funded by pharmaceutical companies, tobacco companies or are just plain anti- anything that gives pleasure.

    I gave you a solution to your concerns in my first post – anybody worried can make their own liquid and use that. You’ve argued since and tried to make me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. In fact, if you bothered to do real research you’ll find absolutely no harm caused by ecigs in the real world and that’s even for people who use them all day every day.


  10. I find it amazing that you think this conversation has ever been about science, or that I am arguing about whether e-cigarettes should or should not be allowed.

    It’s a prop master’s job to not only provide the props for a production, but to be aware of the rules and regulations concerning each. If the play requires weapons, the prop master should be aware of the safe handling as well as legal concerns in dealing with replica weapons. If there is live flame on stage, the surrounding props need to be flame-retardant. Likewise, if the play calls for smoking, the prop master needs to know the relevant information concerning smoking and any smoking alternatives that can be used. Since e-cigarettes are illegal or heavily regulated in a number of countries around the world, I think it is a good idea to keep up to date with their current status to avoid a dicey situation down the road.

    I also brought up some health concerns, since these will probably play into their regulation. You gave a solution to the concerns of poor labeling in your first post – and I thanked you for it. There’s a scroll-bar to the right that you can use to reread what was written. You then make a claim that a product in existence for three years can be considered absolutely safe for all long-term effects. I called you out on that belief – not that e-cigarettes are harmful, but that claiming something (anything) is safe without study is dangerous. Again, if you take the time to reread the post, you will see that I present a number of the major studies that have been done, and how that affects, or might affect, our use of e-cigarettes.

    If you feel I am arguing with you, it is only because you continually divert the conversation to an argument about e-cigarettes themselves. It’s embarrassing that you continue to miss the point of this article, yet keep coming back. You seem completely uninterested in learning any more about the purpose of this site (you can view the entire archives as a start), only in repeating the soundbites you consider to be “arguments”, which include ad hominem attacks, arguing the extremes, and sarcasm. Not only that, but the site you link to has the majority of its scientific studies coming from e-cigarette manufacturers and retailers, which have a financial interest in selling e-cigarettes. So even though I personally view e-cigarettes as safe, please excuse my suspicion when an e-cigarette factory claims their e-cigarettes are safer than tomatoes.

  11. Its a good thing to note that electronic cigarettes may in fact come with a risk of some side effects like a sore throat, headache, dry mouth and bad after-taste. In the scheme of things, this seems like a small price to pay to finally be able to successfully quit smoking and to be able to avoid the dangerous risk of lung cancer to ourselves and others.

  12. Great article with great info. I suppose the big question is are they MORE harmful than traditional cigarettes. Studies, as noted, are ongoing and it will be interesting to see the acceptance rate in another year or two. Gov Schwartzennager (sp?) supports the accessibility of them to people. Some foreign airlines are allowing use of them in flight and even selling them. Then on the other hand, you have those banning the use. Again, will be interesting to see where this all stands in a year or two.

  13. Hey Eric, great article! Stumbled onto it while doing some personal research.

    If it helps you any, Wikipedia has a great list of other places we encounter Propylene glycol in our lives (thinking in terms of long term exposure.)


    This one stood out at me the most:

    “As a non-toxic antifreeze for winterizing drinking water systems, and in applications where the used antifreeze eventually will be drained into the soil, water, or a septic system.”

    If city regulations and some fancy sanitation engineer has no problem pouring this stuff into drinking water and soil, then I wouldn’t be too concerned.


  14. eCig.pk has lots of nice tobacco flavours, but be warned, he “boosts” the liquid himself if you order 24mg or 36mg, the 36mg I got from him last year was NOT 36, not a chance. If you like 24mg or less, you’re set. good prices.

Comments are closed.