Smoke signals

New research on the effects of e-cigarettes may influence FDA regulations of the popular devices

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A. Sue Weisler

Smoking machines and hand-held e-cigarette devices, developed by Risa Robinson and several mechanical engineering students, have internal sensors to track the number of cigarettes an individual uses, puff length, emissions and flow rate to determine the total exposure a smoker would have.

Risa Robinson is putting solid data behind e-cigarette puffs of smoke.

As e-cigarettes become more popular, her research into their use and nicotine effects will be used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate e-cigarette products touted as a means for smoking cessation, as less toxic and less addicting than traditional cigarettes.

“What the FDA doesn’t understand yet is whether e-cigarettes are actually more or less harmful,” said Robinson, department head of mechanical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. “That may seem like a black-and-white question, but there so many areas of risk that you can look at.”

Robinson received a National Institutes of Health grant in August and is developing comparative information between e-cigarettes and conventional cigarettes on nicotine emissions and dosages to evaluate toxicological risks.

Unlike conventional tobacco products, electronic cigarette information is limited, especially data describing realistic use of these products and health effects, Robinson explained. In terms of carcinogens, specifically tar associated with tobacco, there are barely measurable amounts in e-cigarettes.

“But what we learned, and what the tobacco industry has known all along, is that when you give somebody a different cigarette, they smoke it differently and they are going to smoke it until they get the nicotine they need,” said Robinson. “We fear that subjects are taking more hits, maybe getting more nicotine, or at least the same amount. And nicotine is an addictive drug with negative health impacts.”

E-cigarettes have an internal heating coil that, once charged, heats a nicotine packet producing a vapor that smokers puff through an atomizer. Early models evolved into glass or metal-enclosed devices, with varying battery capacity and refillable chambers. Some are re-chargeable and have internal controls to regulate puffs.

Over the last several years, co-ops, research assistants and undergraduates on Robinson’s senior design teams developed a variety of testing devices, most original and first of their kind, to assess particle deposition of nicotine on human lungs due to traditional cigarettes and now e-cigarette varieties.

“We’ve had to constantly adapt,” said Gary DiFrancesco, a senior research assistant working in Robinson’s Respiratory Technologies Lab on the project. The multidisciplinary team also includes Todd Pagano, associate professor of chemistry at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, who is measuring the chemicals to a resolution that has not been done as extensively in prior studies.

This past December, Robinson was among a select group of university and corporate project teams that presented research findings, and she showcased the new test equipment prototypes at a public workshop and panel discussion hosted by the FDA.

“You wouldn’t think a mechanical engineer would do this, but our research involves design, thermal fluid mechanics, sensors and controls,” she said. “It can have an impact on quality of life and public policy. I have found that this type of work appeals to students, too, because decisions and work they do here can someday potentially influence a decision at Congress. That’s exciting.”