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The Evolution and Impact of Electronic Cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes, first introduced in the U.S. market in 2006, have evolved from nicotine delivery systems to sophisticated, customizable devices that can deliver a range of illicit drugs.
Date Published
February 12, 2020

Although e-cigarettes were first developed as an alternative to traditional tobacco products, new generations of the personal vaporizers are increasingly being used to deliver drugs such as THC (the intoxicating compound in marijuana), methamphetamine, fentanyl, and synthetic cannabinoids. To better understand what they call the “more nefarious uses and outcomes” of e-cigarette devices, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) have characterized how the devices continue to evolve, how the newest devices impact drug delivery, and how illicit e-cigarette pharmaceutical products are being developed and distributed.

The NIJ-supported study, led by VCU forensic toxicologist Michelle Peace, had three objectives: characterize the new models of e-cigarettes and how they are customized; characterize a variety of commercially available e-liquids for refilling e-cigarettes, including some advertised as containing drugs other than nicotine; and develop a model for characterizing the particle-size distribution in aerosols.

The researchers looked at third- and fourth-generation devices, noting that although the third-generation devices are still “traditional,” fourth-generation devices “allow for alternative products, such as plant materials and [drug containing] waxes, to be vaped.” Some are also designed so the e-liquid can be dripped directly onto the heating coil, which is promoted as increasing the strength and taste of the inhaled vapor. The fourth-generation vaporizers can also be customized and come with different types of heating coils — some intended for vaporizing solids, not liquids.

“Characterization of new devices is critical to understand the nature of new drug paraphernalia and educate law enforcement to collect such evidence,” the researchers said. “Additionally, devices may drive or facilitate new drug formulations, which are critical to understand.”

Drug forums and e-liquid vendors were monitored by the researchers for e-liquids that “purportedly contained alternative pharmaceuticals.” A clue in searching for e-liquids that contain illicit drugs is cost, the scientists said. Most nicotine e-liquids range from $5 to $10, while alternative drug e-liquids go for five to twenty times as much.

The researchers purchased online nine e-liquids suspected of containing chemicals “intended for a ‘legal high.’” Four samples were also purchased from what the researchers described as a “retailer who indicated he had four products containing Kratom,” a plant that contains a psychotropic component. THC, synthetic cannabinoids, and dextromethorphan, a drug found in some cough medicines, “were identified in e-liquids purportedly containing only CBD to be consumed for ‘health benefits,’” the researchers said.

The scientists also examined the aerosols generated by e-cigarettes to gauge how effective the devices were in delivering a drug into the body. They noted that advanced e-cigarette users often modify their devices by adjusting the heating coil resistance and battery power “in an attempt to optimize their vaping experience and potentially deliver more drug in the aerosol.” The researchers found that increasing the voltage does increase the “dose per puff,” but that the increase was “not particularly significant.”

Overall, comparisons of the particle-size distribution in aerosols from e-cigarettes found that the substances tested had particle distributions similar to the traditional e-liquids containing nicotine. They also determined that methamphetamine and methadone e-liquids “generate similar particle size distribution to nicotine.” And the researchers determined that methamphetamine and methadone, like nicotine, “can be effectively absorbed into the bloodstream” by using e-cigarettes.

Fourth-generation e-cigarettes are effective drug delivery systems and now can “facilitate the aerosolization of drugs from products that are not liquid,” the researchers said. “E-liquids, semi-solids, and solid materials can contain dangerous DOTNs [drugs other than nicotine], such as synthetic cannabinoids.”

“This research has provided greater understanding in the court systems nationwide as to the nature of drug usage, abuse, and overdose cases in which electronic cigarettes were used to deliver an illicit drug,” the researchers concluded.

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2016-DN-BX-0150 awarded to Virginia Commonwealth University. This article is based on the grantee report Chasing the Electronic Cigarette Dragon: Characterizing the Evolution and Impact of Design and Content, Michelle Peace, principal investigator, Department of Forensic Science, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA.

Date Published: February 12, 2020