Concern Rises Over Safety Of Chinese-Made E-Cigarettes

Issue 25 Summer/Fall 2015

Lack Of Regulation May Lead To Unsafe Products Sold Worldwide, Experts Say

Woman smoking e-cigarette

Beyond the debate over whether the “vaping” boom will aid or detract from anti-smoking efforts, a whole new safety issue is emerging around e-cigarettes.

Experts point to the source of most of the world’s vaping products, China, and worry that a lack of regulatory oversight in factories there could be putting consumers’ health at risk.

In a special investigation launched by The New York Times, sources spoke of hundreds of small, fly-by-night factories using cheaper materials that could easily leach toxins into inhaled e-cigarette vapor.

Research on vaping products exported from China has already turned up troubling results.

“We’ve found on the order of 25 or 26 different elements, including metals, in the e-cigarette aerosols,” Prue Talbot, a professor of cell biology at the University of California, Riverside, told the Times. “Some of the metal particles are less than 100 nanometers in diameter, and those are a concern because they can penetrate deep into the lungs.”

One 2009 study found traces of diethylene glycol – a key ingredient in antifreeze – in e-cigarette vapor. Another study found nickel and chromium in e-cigarette vapor at levels that were four times that of cigarette smoke. There have also been reports of cheap, toxic paints leaching from e-cigarette heating coils into inhaled vapor.

“I worry about overseas consumers,” Danny Zhu, manager of the large Shenzen, China-based e-cigarette maker KangerTech, told the Times. While his large-scale plant has quality controls in place, “there are lots of [other] small workshops here, with 10 or 20 people, and they have no quality control or safety certifications for the material they use. Some of their products are covered with a layer of paint. It’s unhealthy.”

Asian factory worker

Counterfeiting – shoddy products camouflaged as higher-quality products – is also rampant, experts say. Now, health advocates, as well as many Chinese overseeing legitimate factories, are hoping for some regulation of their industry. Right now, Chinese factories don’t have to adhere to any quality-control rules, because China has not yet regulated this very new business.

In fact, e-cigarettes were born in China. In 2004, a Chinese pharmacist named Han Li helped to create and market the first such product.

Chinese vaping products now dominate the international market, with over 300 million e-cigarettes shipped to consumers in the United States and Europe in 2014, the Times said. Each e-cigarette is made of components that include integrated circuit boards, heating coils, lithium ion batteries, and tube casings – all of which can contain coatings or other chemicals that could contaminate inhaled vapor.

While the new investigation found many Chinese e-cigarette makers took pains to ensure a safe product, hundreds of smaller shops cut corners. Inevitably, many of those shoddy products make their way to vaping enthusiasts in the United States, where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has – as of now – little oversight.

Asian marketplace

American businessman Yaniv Nahon produces his own line of e-cigarettes in China. “A lot of our products come in smaller orders using express mail service, no questions asked,” he told the Times. “Importing this into the U.S. isn’t difficult.”

The day may come when the Chinese government or the FDA demand the routine inspection and certification of Chinese e-cigarette factories. However, experts believe that could still be years away, and many big e-cigarette manufacturers are already beginning to move plants to the United States or Europe, the Times said.

In the meantime, quality manufacturers in China wait for better government oversight.

“This is a really chaotic industry,” Jackie Zhuang, an executive at a Shanghai-based tobacco flavoring company, told the Times. “I hope it will soon be well-regulated.”