Last updated on July 21st, 2019
According to the CDC, vaping is now the most popular method smokers use to quitting smoking. In 2017 we started to hear about another type of non-combustable cigarette alternative – HNB products. HNB stands for ‘heat-not-burn’. But is a HNB device safer than an e-cigarette device? How do they differ?
The vaping industry does not refer to e-cigarette devices as HNB devices.
Here are some facts.
HNB products contain tobacco or other loose leaves.
E-cigarettes do not contain any tobacco. E-liquids consist of flavorings, water, FDA approved propylene glycol and USP vegetable glycerin.
Both tobacco leaves and e-liquids contain nicotine which has known side effects, but is not a carcinogen. E-liquids, unlike HNB products may be ordered with different levels of nicotine including zero nicotine.
Tobacco cigarettes, pipes, cigars and cannabis joints all use combustion to create smoke. The leaves are set afire and the user inhales the smoke along with the flavor, nicotine, tar and carcinogens that are released.
With a ‘heat not burn’ device, the leaves are heated in a chamber to a point where it produces a vapor. There’s no flame and the leaves do not burn down to ash. The flavor and essence of the leaves are inhaled along with nicotine.
According to researchers’ reports in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Internal Medicine), the smoke released by a “heat-not-burn” cigarette had 84 percent of the nicotine found in traditional cigarettes.
The research team headed by Dr. Reto Auer of the University of Bern in Switzerland found that HNB devices do release chemicals including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Whether they are harmful is still under review.
The chemicals in e-liquids have been studied for several years. Some of the most reputable studies conducted by world-renowned scientist Konstantinos Farsalinos showed that the most suspect chemicals found in some e-liquids were diacetyl and acetyl propionyl.
Farsalinos reported that e-liquids should be made without those chemicals, but even so, the levels found in tests should not present a health risk.
Scientific testing in the U.S. and the UK has shown e-cigarettes to be a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes, but there is a wide difference of opinion from both sides of the the pond.
In 2016 Public Health England announced tests had shown that ecig were “at least 98% safer than cigarettes”.
After studying the majority of vaping research, Professor Linda Bauld, Professor of Health Policy University of Stirling, UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies (UKTAS) and Cancer Research UK has said,
“There has been no scientific proof that e-cigarettes are as harmful as smoking”.
More recently, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine (NAS) issued a report that concluded that there was conclusive proof e-cigarette devices are far safer than traditional smoking products.
”completely substituting e-cigarettes for combustible tobacco cigarettes reduces users’ exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens present in combustible tobacco cigarettes.”
The NAS also said that ecigs can help smokers quit.
“There is moderate evidence … that more frequent use of e-cigarettes is associated with increased likelihood of cessation.”
Despite the positive news, forty-seven percent of Americans think vaping may be a health threat similar to regular smoking. This came from a 2016 Reuters/Ipsos survey.
The FDA has yet to allow e-cigarette companies to say their products are less harmful than cigarettes.
While there have been independent scientific reports that e-cigarette vaporization of e-liquids is at least 95% safer than smoking combustable tobacco cigarettes, recent claims of lowered risk or health benefits for heat-not-burn tobacco products (which heat tobacco) are based on industry-funded research.
In February 2018 Public Health England issued a new report confirming support for vaping. The authors, who are among the most respected smoking, nicotine, and addiction researchers in the world also addressed concern over HNB products. They noted that they,
“may be considerably less harmful than tobacco cigarettes and more harmful than e-cigarettes.”
British American Tobacco (BAT) makers of HNB brand Glo claimed that it produces 90% less toxicants than a conventional cigarette. Their studies were based on industry-sponsored research.
Prior studies of past HNB products (such as RJR’s Eclipse) done independently of the tobacco company found no evidence that they were less harmful than combustible cigarettes.
Still manufacturers of heat-not-burn products believe it is very possible e-cigarettes could be overtaken by their HNB devices.
The first heat-not-burn products were developed in 1988 by R.J. Reynolds. Ten years later Phillip Morris International introduced their version of a HNB cigarette.
About 2 decades later the vaping industry started selling vaporizers with HNB technology. Although not referred to as a HNB device, these vaporizer are designed to heat “loose leaves” rather than e-liquids.
Still, vaporization of e-liquids is still the most popular method used as a smoking alternative.
According the NY Times
“An F.D.A. advisory panel will review an application from Philip Morris International for iQOS, an electronic device that unlike e-cigarettes, contains tobacco in a stick that the company says heats it but does not burn it. It releases nicotine vapor the company says is less hazardous than smoke. If approved, it would be the first company allowed by the government to claim its product is less harmful than cigarettes.”
In January, 2018 an advisory panel at the FDA did review the information that Philip Morris had submitted.
Unfortunately for Philip Morris, the panel wasn't convinced by the company's arguments that switching to their product iQOS cuts the risk of users contracting diseases related to tobacco use. The FDA panel also found that Philip Morris hadn't demonstrated a tangible reduction in harm compared to cigarette smoking.
With the rise of e-cigarette use, it’s becoming apparent that both vaping and tobacco HNB products will gain in popularity, while tobacco smoking will continue to decline.
This fact has certainly not been ignored by large tobacco companies. Although they got a late start, they have entered the e-cig market with first-generation (cig-alike) brands such as Blu, VUSE and GreenSmoke, but they are having to compete with often superior, more innovative products – many of which are reviewed on this website.
They’re banking on the growth and acceptance of their new HNB devices.
The bottom line is that only independent scientific safety studies for both the vapor industry’s e-cigarettes and big tobacco’s HNB products will prove whether one is deemed “safer” than the other. Whether either smoking alternative will gain support from the FDA still remains to be seen.