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Opinion: So what am I vaping anyway?

Vegetable glycerine, propylene glycol and nicotine. These are the three base ingredients that all e-liquids have in common.
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Unsure what’s in your favourite e-juice flavour? Both the Electronic Cigarette Trade Association and most reputable e-juice manufacturers publicly report their ingredients and testing information on their websites. Photo supplied

Vegetable glycerine, propylene glycol and nicotine. These are the three base ingredients that all e-liquids have in common. Individually, they can be found in products that we encounter every single day; whether it’s food, medicine, household products, or if you visited the hospital today — in the very air we breathe.

If these substances are so common and harmless, what’s the big deal about everyone vaping it? Surely if the Ontario government wants to treat these devices and the liquids that go in them like actual cigarettes, they must be terrible, right? Let’s talk about that.

With one of the oldest and largest research data volumes of any non-food substance that we encounter frequently, propylene glycol (PG) is what I believe to be the most important ingredient in e-liquid.

It does the heavy lifting: Keeping the solution together, carrying flavour and nicotine, as well as delivering the retired smoker that ever-sought-after throat hit. Too much of it, however, will make it uncomfortable to vape, while too little will cause certain parts of the liquid to fall out of solution and separate.

In effect, propylene glycol is inert, and can be found in a whole gamut of pharmaceutical applications: inhalers, injected with medications that cannot mix with water, and pumped into hospital air for purification are just a few of its uses.

Given that, it is worth mentioning the substance comes with absolutely no health-related concerns when used in any form. None. While it is possible to be sensitive to PG, it is not at all possible to be “allergic” or “intolerant” to it. The absolute worst thing that it does when vaporized is dry out your upper respiratory tract. Fortunately, it is not the only thing in e-liquid and one of the other major components helps counteract the dry throat.

Vegetable glycerine (VG) is major component No. 2. It can be considered mainly a filler, as it is less expensive than propylene glycol, and significantly smoother to vape.

When this industry was in its infancy, e-liquids were predominantly found in mix ratios that contained more PG than VG. These days, however, devices are leaps and bounds more powerful and are capable of producing more vapour at higher temperatures.

This has seen e-liquid manufacturers flip the mix ratio around completely. This is mainly because on its own, PG is harsh on the throat. The VG counteracts this harshness, providing a more of a moist feel in the mouth and throat.

VG is actually an alcohol and is not technically made from food products at all anymore. In fact, most manufacturers use pure synthetic pharmaceutical-grade glycerol these days. Don’t let that scare you, though — if I hadn’t said anything, you probably wouldn’t have known the difference. I don’t and I vape all kinds of different e-liquids every day. Besides, it’s kosher!

Nicotine is the third and final ingredient absolutely all e-liquids have in common.

While nicotine itself is a very addictive substance, its effects on the body are actually not much different than caffeine. They are both stimulants that increase heart rate, blood pressure and will absolutely make you sick in large enough dosages.

If you’re not a smoker, but a heavy coffee drinker and you’re reading this, think about that terrible headache and crankiness you feel when you haven’t had a coffee yet. The lethargy, irritability and the feeling like you could snap on anyone for even the smallest reason — that’s how a smoker feels when they go from lots of nicotine, straight down to none.

Clearly, it’s not at all ideal to be addicted to anything. However, there are significantly worse things to be addicted to. Nicotine is not the bad guy here — it’s the thousands of other chemical compounds that can be found in cigarettes that are released by combustion, or burning, the tobacco.

This alone is the reason I always encourage folks who are new to vaping to stick to the amount they are comfortable with for as long as they please, and to not rush stepping down to lower concentrations.

At this point, anyone reading this is probably wondering what the big deal with these liquids is, given that I haven’t mentioned a single negative thing about any of these substances — except for nicotine being able to kill you in a large enough dosage, in which case the same can be said for pretty much anything.

The danger for any serious side effect when vaping actually comes from the flavouring used. Compounds such as acetyl propinyl and diacetyl are the Big Two that manufacturers look out for, as they are possibly linked to health problems.

Both of these compounds occur naturally, or are added as flavour enhancers in food, which makes them safe to ingest, but possibly not to inhale. While the e-juice industry aims to eliminate these two agents and most major e-juice manufacturers don’t use it, they can be found at extremely high concentrations in cigarette smoke. 


Fortunately, we have an organization here in Canada called ECTA (Electronic Cigarette Trade Association). They do everything in their power to ensure that standards are set for both hardware and liquid alike, and set very strict guidelines for what compounds can be in e-liquid, as well as what the acceptable levels are. In order to be a member of ECTA, everything you sell or distribute must adhere to its standards. With that said, many of the more popular brands either are members or are distributed by ECTA client members.

At the end of the day, inhaling nothing but pure clean mountain air is the best thing for us, but what I am getting at with all this information is that these ingredients themselves are not harmful, and it is possible to know exactly what you’re putting in your body.

Many of these companies are completely transparent when it comes to their lab test results and ingredients. Off the top of my head, without even looking them up, I can guarantee that Twelve Monkeys, The Illusions, Theravape, The Juice Punk, Gold Seal, and Moshi, just to name a few, post their lab test results publicly on their websites for anyone to see.

Bottom line: Do your research, find something you like and that you are comfortable with, and vape happy. It’s as easy as that.

If for some reason you still don’t trust these liquids, but still like the idea of using a vaporizer as tobacco harm reduction, flavourless liquids exist that literally only have the three base ingredients, and come with no chance of having anything in them that you haven’t already run into today.

Matt Boucher is a vape enthusiast in Greater Sudbury. You can find him dispensing vaping wisdom and advice at Juice on the Loose  on Barrydowne Road.