Over the past century, efforts to study the health effects of cigarette smoking have also led to tremendous advances in the way we conduct clinical and population health science research.

An important innovation in the development of laboratory experiments on smoking was the development of the research cigarette, seen below. This research cigarette helped settle disagreements between researchers about whether differences between different brands and varieties of cigarettes may have been causing differing outcomes seen in their experiments. Today, the US National Institutes of Drug Abuse (NIDA) Drug Supply Program provides clinical researchers with sources of legal and illegal drugs for use in their experiments that ensure each experiment is controlling for differences between the products that could affect the observed results of studies.

Photo taken by Alex Liber in 2010

Now, as the proliferation of e-cigarettes raises important questions about whether the products are harmful to users’ health, research into the health effects of e-cigarette use in laboratory settings has generated conflicting results. While many of these different outcomes can be attributed to the different measurement tools, methods and indices used, there is some difference in outcome that can be attributed to the e-cigarette used. For example, some research found that formaldehyde is produced from an e-cigarette in normal use, while other researchers pointed out that a faulty device or user error might have been responsible. The research community studying e-cigarettes has faced a challenge because researchers are not all studying the same product.

Therefore, the Tobacco Atlas team was greatly encouraged when NIDA announced on January 12, 2018, that they had reached a deal with e-cigarette manufacturer NJOY to create a Standard Research E-Cigarette. This development presents an opportunity for researchers to use the same benchmark for their clinical studies and will hopefully result in studies with more directly comparable results.

NIDA’s Standard Research E-Cigarette

The Standard Research E-Cigarette employs a closed tank and rechargeable base design. All e-liquid is tobacco-flavored and uses a 50/50 propylene glycol/vegetable glycerin mixing ratio. The nicotine concentration in the liquid is either 0% or 1.5% (also denominated as 0 mg/g and 1.5 mg/g). The device and tank each cost $10 to purchase. A meaningful criticism of this new device must be noted here; the variety of e-cigarettes used is larger than the variety of cigarettes used. The Standard Research E-cigarette will need to be joined by other reference products if the data being captured in these e-cigarette experiments are to reflect their use in the real world. This product nonetheless represents an opportunity for researchers and advocates in the e-cigarette space to do something that is not happening nearly enough— to be on the same page to have a more meaningful discussion.

By Alex Liber