Walking through Brooklyn on a Saturday afternoon, right in front of the hat store and next to the vegan ice cream truck, I saw a retail truck hawking "VitaCigs." It's exactly what it sounds like: You can now vaporize your vitamins.
VitaCigs are disposable, flavored e-cigs infused with vitamins. They're also nicotine-free, which on its own makes them at least a bit healthier than most e-cigarettes on the market, which are already a bit healthier than analog tobacco cigs. But nutritious cigs? That's pushing it. What’s next, pizza-flavored spinach? Cancer-preventing beer? Will we be smoking our medicine?
The novel e-cig company offers five flavors: relax, refresh, energize, calm, and grace. Each has basically the same vitamin content: A, B1, C, E, Coenzyme Q10, with small variations. In other words, the flavor names are pure marketing. "Relax" is a berry-flavored stick colored purple; "refresh" is green peppermint. You get the idea.
The obvious question is: Is there actually a nutritional benefit? It's not an easy one to answer; the legitimacy of current vitamin supplements on the market already ranges from total snake oil to doctor-approved. The VitaCigs website lists the cigs' supplemental facts including ingredients and dosage, but nothing about this product—not the device nor the health claims—has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The new delivery method, inhaled vapor, further clouds the question. Vitamin sprays already exist and claim to be more effective than swallowing pills because it’s absorbed straight into the bloodstream, skirting the digestive system (however, note that the intestines exist in part to enable nutrient absorption). Like the legions of enriched with Vitamin X! health claims shouting at us from supermarket shelves however, there's no definitive scientific proof, and the law does little to prevent unfounded claims.
Another vitamin e-cig company, Vita Vapes, sounds a bit more legit. It sells e-juice infused with vitamins C and B12 for next-gen e-cigs’ refillable cartridges. The liquid is handmade by biochemists, according to the company website, using "pharmacy-grade vitamins" approved for human consumption by the FDA. "These beneficial vitamins are absorbed through the glands in your mouth and right into the bloodstream," Vita Vape explains. "As simply as breathing in air."
That puts it on par with strategically marketed brands like Vitamin Water, Emergen-C, or fortified breakfast cereal. It’s probably not going to hurt you, but it’s also probably not going to do much of anything at all, especially when compared with good old-fashioned vegetable-eating.
A VitaCig will run you five bucks a piece (that’s about 500 puffs), so the gamble’s on you. Vita Vapes, for its part, admits that “this delivery method delivers a small volume (less than 0.1 ml at a time) with most devices… much lower compared to 30 ml (or much higher) volumes of the other B-12 products and/or the 0.4ml delivery volume which each spray of many of the spray products currently on the market." That's because not all the ingredients are absorbed; a lot is lost when you exhale.
VitaCig CEO Mark Linkhorst was quick to point out in an email to Motherboard that "vaping [vitamins] doesn't beat the ingestion of them through healthy foods." Rather, he said, his team is offering an alternative to traditional nicotine-based e-liquids. In fact, he eschewed the word "supplement" altogether, pitching instead "a healthier e-cig. Our focus is on harm reduction."
Indeed, "it's better than the alternative" is a cornerstone e-cig advocates’ argument. But there’s no doubt the mere idea of healthy cigarettes, isn’t going to sit well with a lot of people, especially considering how controversial vaping has been just based on the claim that it's less bad for you than tobacco.
"I'm sure with time and success we'll have our naysayers," said Linkhorst. But so far, he said, the reaction from customers has been "smiles smiles smiles."