Researchers from the University of California, Riverside, have some bad news for smokers looking to put a halt to the filthy habit by using electronic quitting aids. After examining various aspects of a handful of commercially-available electronic nicotine delivery systems, the team concluded that so-called e-cigarettes are unsafe and pose a health risk. They are now calling for such devices to be withdrawn from sale pending a rigid safety evaluation.

Electronic cigarettes give users a dose of nicotine without burning tobacco. They're made up of a battery, an atomizer, and a cartridge containing nicotine and propylene glycol. When someone takes a draw, a sensor activates the battery which changes the tip of the device red to simulate smoking and also heats the atomizer. This vaporizes the chemicals and the e-cigarette then delivers a dose of nicotine into the user's lungs.

Such devices are readily available in shopping malls throughout the U.S. but there's been "virtually no scientific studies on e-cigarettes and their safety," according to Prue Talbot, professor of cell biology and neuroscience. The research team from University of California, Riverside decided to find out exactly how safe so-called e-cigarettes are and purchased products from five companies.

The image shows e-cigarette fluid leaking out of a cartridge, making it difficult to handle without touching the nicotine solution (Image credit: Talbot lab, UC Riverside)

They examined the design, accuracy and clarity of labeling, nicotine content, whether the devices or cartridges leaked and looked for defective parts. How the devices and components were disposed of at the end of their useful lives, whether any errors were made in filling orders, and the quality of the instruction manual and what claims were made while advertising, were also scrutinized.

The team found numerous issues including lack of essential warnings, poor or confusing usage instructions and a lack of information about what exactly is contained in the e-cigarettes. Kamlesh Asotra of the University of California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program - which part-funded the study - confirmed that "virtually nothing is known about the toxicity of the vapors generated by these e-cigarettes."

They discovered various documents which made claims that could not be scientifically substantiated and, although the researchers found specific design differences between the brands, most of the cartridges were found to leak, which could lead to exposure to a dangerous and addictive chemical. Manufacture was unregulated and environmentally-sensitive disposal methods lacking.

The study concluded with the researchers stating that e-cigarettes pose a health risk to users and are urging regulators to consider their removal from the market pending a rigid safety evaluation.

The results from the study have now been published online at Tobacco Control.