E-Cigarettes: Avoiding the Risks

Amidst all the legal arguments and political rhetoric surrounding e-cigarettes and the regulations on where you can use and buy them, lawmakers and e-cig advocates seem to have forgotten that both parties want the same thing: a safer, quality product for a healthier society.

While still new, the e-cigarette industry is no longer in its infancy. The attitude currently surrounding e-cigs might better be described as its teenage years; rebellious, young companies and consumers, fighting with mama-and-papa government over where and when they can go out. All while friends and relatives chime in on social media, and the cool uncle, science, tries to calm everyone down with a little reason and understanding.

“Cool uncle,” and e-cigarette researcher, Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, has done one of the largest e-cigarette studies to date, in which he tested 159 different e-liquids for two harmful chemicals commonly used in food and e-cig flavorings called, diacetyl and acetyl propanol.

“We must be sensible, we must be realistic and we must provide some minimal level of regulation, “ Farsalinos said. “But that regulation does not mean restriction. It means making a good quality product.”

Currently, the quality of these products, or what ingredients can be used in them, is completely unregulated.

“We compare it to the Wild West, there are no rules,” said Michael Seilbeck, spokesman for the American Lung Association (ALA). “What is being sold in this store is not necessarily the same as that store.”

Up to now, all proposed e-cigarette legislation has focused on where and when it is acceptable to use them in public, as well as banning sales to minors. There are only three states with statewide restrictions on e-cigs, similar to those on traditional cigarettes; New Jersey, Utah and North Dakota, while 45 states have laws prohibiting sales to minors, with Maine, Texas, New Mexico, Montana and Oregon yet to do so. Additionally, over 300 municipalities across the country have passed their own legislation, restricting e-cig use in public spaces to varying degrees. (For a complete breakdown of state laws, here is an interactive map)

Greg Conley, president of the American Vaping Association (AVA), talked about the e-cig community’s mixed feelings on current and impending regulations.

“Many vapers have supported regulations for banning sales to minors and child resistant packaging, but they want appropriate regulations that don’t impact their ability as adults to access these products,” Conley said. “We have a public health crisis where 450,000 people are dying every year due to smoking related diseases. We have known for 40+ years that smokers smoke for the nicotine but they die from the tar and other toxins. So we need innovative products and the current FDA approved methods are not working for people as well as e-liquids.”

While traditional cigarettes were banned in public places well after science had established the devastating health risks associated with smoking them, e-cigs are not being given the same room to breathe. Instead, lawmakers and tobacco control groups have been lobbying for, and enacting bans on vaping in public spaces well before science has established a firm understanding of all the risks involved.

“If you can smell something, that means the particle is big enough to trigger an asthma attack,” explained Seilbeck. “So should we be exposing the public to something that, not only do we not know what’s in it, but is something that might trigger their asthma? I am not saying it is causing asthma, but that was one of the main reasons the initial laws were passed; for those who are not partaking, why should they be exposed?”

However, sweeping generalizations can be inaccurate.

“I do not want to say they are safe, but e-cigs are much less harmful than traditional cigarettes,” said Farsalinos. “There is nothing that we consume that is entirely safe. Even water has impurities; it contains microbes and bacteria… but that does not mean water is inherently dangerous.”

While, according to the ALA, traditional cigarettes contain about 600 ingredients, 69 of which are known to cause cancer or be poisonous, e-cigs contain a fraction of that. The three primary ingredients in e-cigs, propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and nicotine, are all well -known and relatively safe chemicals to inhale by ALA standards. However, the chemical flavorings in e-cigs, often designed for ingestion, pose a potential risk when inhaled. Diacetyl and a derivative, acetyl propanol, used in buttery and custard flavors, are the best -known of these potentially harmful chemicals.

Popcorn lung, or to use its real, and much scarier name, Bronchiolitus Obliterans, is an untreatable disease that can result from prolonged inhalation of diacetyl or acetyl propanol. It is a condition in which the tiny air sacs, called alveoli, become scarred and stop working.

Most e-cig advocates are wary of government-imposed regulations of any kind, but none can argue against quality control. Russ Wishtart, an outspoken e-cig advocate who has sued New York City in an attempt to get e-cigarettes removed from the Clean Indoor Air Act, personifies this.

“I am not saying that it [quality control and ingredient disclosure] should be required,” said Wishtart, who also hosts a podcast that devotes a lot of time to e-cigs. “I am not for any kind of restrictions, laws or requirements, but that is something that I would choose to spend my money on.”

But can companies be trusted to regulate themselves without government intervention when profits are at stake?

According to Seilbeck, “In many instances, profit is being put before public health, certainly. It is much easier from a profit perspective, to not look at the health questions.“

But that doesn’t mean they should not be asked.

After seeing Farsalinos’ diacetyl study, Wishtart spent some of his own money to ask his own questions and independently test a popular e-liquid flavor; Mother’s Milk, whose producer, Suicide Bunny, claimed to be diacetyl free. The results came back showing low amounts of Diacetyl and high levels of Acetyl Propanol. In short, the company did not regulate themselves.

“Companies know about these chemicals but customers and users of e-cigs don’t know what they are,” Wishtart said. “Diacetyl exists in traditional cigarettes but the FDA prohibits them from adding more of it. If you think they are going to allow it in E-Cigs, I got a bridge to sell you.”

Cigs Vs. E-cigs
Cigs Vs. E-cigs: A Chemical Comparison

According to Farsalinos, this is an important factor in the e-cig, vape debate.

“That diacetyl [in traditional cigarettes] is produced as a bi-product of combustion and is therefore an unavoidable risk,” he said. “But in e-cigarettes, it is an added ingredient, and is an avoidable risk.“

Isn’t avoiding risks what e-cigarettes are all about in the first place? If smoking cigarettes is a risky behavior, choosing to pick up e-cigarettes is an example of risk- avoiding behavior. Should governing bodies that are tasked with finding public health risks and then mitigating them, take a more proactive role within this nationwide exercise in risk avoidance?

The FDA has proposed a rule that, if approved, would give them authority to regulate e-cigarettes just as it does traditional tobacco products. However, that rule does not include a provision for regulation of the chemical components of e-liquid.

“Finding diacetyl in e-liquids doesn’t mean that, suddenly, vaping is worse than smoking. On the other hand, it also doesn’t mean there is nothing wrong,” Farsalinos said. “The key issue [diacetyl and flavorings] is an avoidable risk and there is no excuse to continually expose people to a risk that can be avoided, especially if it can be avoided for a small cost. It is something every manufacturer should do, regardless of regulations.“

Coffee as Theater: A Caffeinated Renaissance

by Anthony DeNicola and Ali Sundermier

A new, more sophisticated breed of coffee drinker has emerged on a large scale. While mass produced coffee from the likes of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, or just about anything fit for a Keurig, may appeal to many, the new breed are not content with wholesale java in small plastic cups brewed with the mechanical efficiency of a German car factory. They seek the kind of patient, subtle, yet undeniable quality reminiscent of Italian Renaissance painters. Ask yourself; do you think Michelangelo would have used a Keurig?

“Things have changed dramatically,” said Kevin Sinnott, creator of CoffeeCon, a consumer specialty-coffee event in Chicago, San Francisco, LA, and NYC. “I think the biggest change has been that consumers now are beginning to see coffee as a cooking art. “

According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), as of December 2014, the retail value of the U.S. coffee market is estimated at $46 billion, with specialty coffees making up about 55% of that. This is reflective of statistics on national coffee drinking trends. According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), who has kept statistics on coffee habits since the 1950s, 34% of Americans consume gourmet coffee beverages daily, a 3% rise from 2013, with high- end espresso drinks seeing the biggest rise in daily use, going from 13% – to – 18%.

“Our customers are so educated in coffee, it’s scary,” said Georgio Testani, owner and operator of Georgio’s Coffee Roasters on Long Island. “They have their own little labs at home.”

Georgio’s is one of several coffee roasters on Long Island catering to these ‘coffeephiles’ by finding the highest quality coffee beans on the planet and providing a plethora of unconventional brewing options such as a siphon, batch brewer, pour-over and trifecta.

The customers who frequent such places seem to want an experience, rather than just a caffeine fix. Brandon King, a former barista at Starbucks before he moved to Roast, another coffee roaster on Long Island, appreciates the differences in the two java dispensaries.

“People are very laid back and nice, they know what they want and they will wait for it,” King said. “We are not rushed all the time like a huge chain, like I was at Starbucks.”

Roast regular customer, Erik Fuhrer, personifies this sentiment. ”Sometimes I go to Starbucks when I don’t have much time but when I want to have an experience and sit down, I come here,” he said while sipping a dark Brazilian roast.

Not to be left behind, the biggest coffee chain on the planet, Starbucks, realized it had to get with the times. Several years ago, they implemented the coffee master program, to train select baristas to have a much deeper understanding of coffee, where it comes from and how it’s made.

According to Christina Koryluk, a Starbucks assistant manager and coffee master, the program requires that they learn about the variables involved in coffee production: the effects of geography and altitude, the different species of coffee trees, how it’s grown and how it’s processed. Coffee masters are able to identify where the coffee came from and the different notes it possesses based on taste and aroma.

Koryluk says that Starbucks has been putting more emphasis on this program as coffee drinkers become more sophisticated.

“They want to put more emphasis on it and have more coffee masters readily available,” Koryluk said. “People care more and are more selective in their process. They don’t mind spending the extra dollars on higher quality coffee.”

In response to the growing interest in gourmet coffee, Sinnott started CoffeeCon four years ago. Since then, it has attracted upwards of 1,000 attendees per event.

“I think it’s a trend,” said Sinnott. “People are moving away from coffee as caffeine and looking for flavor first.“

The great thing about CoffeeCon, Sitton says, is that not only do they do coffee tastings but they have classes on site that teach anything a budding coffee enthusiast might want to learn.

Coffee as fuel fits the mass- produced, mechanized model that has dominated the market. But coffee as theater, the kind that makes taste buds leap and nostrils flare, requires an artist’s touch and attention to detail.

“You’ll see at least one person today who will take a sip of coffee, who’s never had coffee brewed how we brew it,” said Sinnot. “Never had coffee roasted or as fresh as ours. They’ll take one taste of it and a great big smile will break out on their face. They’ll nudge the person next to them and say wow.“

Coffee as Theater: Georgio’s Journey from Alison Sundermier on Vimeo.

Data Map Shows the Best Place to be a Phan.

What would we do if there was no such thing as recorded music? Go see a band play live.

What would we do if we wanted to know all the places that the rock band, Phish, have played in their 30 year history since 1983? Make a map.

That is what data scientist, and Phan (Phish + fan = Phan), Seth Kadish did. By using data from the Phan run website, Phish.net, Kadish created a map that not only counts the amount of shows held in each state, but also the winding paths of the various tours across the country. The big winners are Vermont and New York, with 242 and 209 shows, respectively. The next highest is Massachusetts, with 97 shows.

For prospective home buyers who also happen to be Phans, this map should help with buying decisions. After all, Phish has never played in either of the Dakotas, Arkansas (really don’t blame them on this one), Wyoming, Alaska or Hawaii. Those are not optimal locations for Phans.

Data maps like this are great for visualizing trends and monotonous data that would bore the average person to death, or just confuse them. Seeing is believing, as they say, even if I don’t know who they are.

NY Times: 36 Hours in Left Bank, Paris

NY Times producer, Fritzie Andrade takes us through a bustling, artistic section of Paris, call the Left Bank.

“The art of life do exist here,” says one of the first people interviewed in the piece.

The piece itself acts like a little, virtual tour through a neighborhood in Paris without the tourists, and our guides are not insufferable know-it-alls. After all, those are the only kind of people who become tour guides.

Unique, artsy umbrellas and macaroons are as French as it gets without have to eat frog legs or surrender to a foreign country. I love the shots inside the candle store, specially the Napoleon. The shots are so vivid and make you feel like you can smell the wax if you sniff hard enough.

I also like that they found some individuals who are so authentically French, and then have some other guys, who speak English without an accent at all, which gives you the sense that a lot more than just native Parisians have shops there.

French food is great, even if it is a bit heavy. The restaurants portion really portrays the care that seems to go into French cooking as a work of art rather than just sustenance.

I loved the kicker: “This is Paris, because in Paris, night and day, you can live different experiences. Different lives. Different things.”

On the whole, it is easy to see how the exclusion of the reporter’s voice adds to the authenticity of the scene being presented in the piece. Everyone who is talking is a member of the community.

Caffeine On Campus: Stony Brook Students Power Up with Coffee but Ditch the Sugar

Red Bull and Starbuck's Coffee are the most popular caffeinated beverages on the market.   (Caffeineinformer.com)
Red Bull and Starbuck’s Coffee are the most popular caffeinated beverages on the market. (Caffeineinformer.com)

For many college students, waking up in the morning is a test of will power. For those, like myself, with a questionable will in this regard, there is a magical substance that will trick your body into wanting to get up. This is the power of Caffeine.

Caffeine comes in several drinkable forms: coffee, carbonated energy drinks or highly concentrated energy shots that taste like a combination of cough syrup and a heart attack. However, not all caffeinated beverages are created equal and some can actually have a negative impact on your health due to an overabundance of sugar. In light of this, I set out to discover how Stony Brook students power up in the morning, and to my surprise, I found that many were not only wary of energy drinks but consciously avoiding sugar.

Storyline: Audio Slideshows Made Easy(ish)

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 4.53.14 PM

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a picture with spoken words, explaining the picture worth? Exactly the number of words it takes to explain it? I will leave that to the philosophers. In the meantime, an app called Storyline is making it possible to create audio-visual slideshows, on-the-go.

I gave the app a try this weekend at the Brooklyn Flea in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. You can check it out here.

The interface is fairly seamless. Storyline asks you to pick a photo source (I used the camera roll on my IPhone) before asking you to pick whatever photos you want to include in your slideshow.


Once you have done that, you add a title and author.


Once you have done that, it takes you to the first picture in your slideshow with a button below it to begin recording your voice.


One problem some might have is the requirement to record the audio for every picture at once, while swiping to the next picture. You either need to write a script or be really good at narrating on the fly. The time limit of two minutes is a big hindrance in itself. The app says you can have up to 20 pictures per slideshow, but I found it impossible to record a good storyline with anything more than 10 or so. The fewer pictures, the more in depth your narration can be.

On the whole, this app has some serious potential in the newsroom, or outside of it, to be more precise. For example, if I had been in Manhattan this past weekend, I imagine I could have used Storyline to create a gripping slideshow, covering the aftermath of the explosion that destroyed three buildings in the lower east side.

The value of pictures or words cannot be measured by the pompous, headcheese ramblings of philosophy professors. Pictures and words get their value from those who read, view and listen to them. Storyline will hopefully give more people a chance to make their valuation.

Serial: A Podcast Heavy on Fiber, Without all the Marshmallows


Podcasts are a relatively new medium of talk radio and journalism that are giving volume to new voices in the media world. ‘Serial,’ a podcast centered around investigative criminal reporting, is one of the loudest among them and currently sits third on Itunes list of top podcasts.

Serial, an offshoot of popular podcast, This American Life, gained unprecedented success when it first aired back in October of 2014, garnering a following of roughly 5 million people during its first season, which saw it rocket to the top of the aforementioned list. In its first season, narrator Sarah Koenig walks us through the story of Adnan Syed, a 17-year-old who was convicted of murdering his ex- girlfriend, Hae Min Lee in 1999, and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Syed plead, not guilty, and maintains his innocence to this day while he attempts to appeal the case.

The first episode, ‘The Alibi,’ immediately piqued my interest when it opened with a choice bit of nat sound; a ‘collect call’ introduction from a prison, notably featuring the subject, Adnan Syed. The robotic-sounding woman and grainy, garbled voice of Syed, immediately gives the piece, and the show itself, an air of authenticity.

Questioning the ­accuracy of every bit of information she is given … Sarah Koenig
Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig

Koenig spends the first episode setting the stage for what is to come, providing background and insight. One of the first things I noticed about her voice is it sounds like NPR. I enjoy NPR and consider them the standard in good radio journalism, which includes having the right talking voice. Her voice may not soothe the soul like Morgan Freeman, but she certainly gets me ready for story time.

Serial weaves the story together throughout the season, with each episode acting as a public accounting of Koenig’s reporting from the previous week. Rather than a news story, this makes Serial feel more like a live book on tape, with each chapter presented as it was finished.

A particularly industrious bit of reporting, featured in episode 5: Route Talk, included an attempt to recreate the supposed route and amount of time it took Syed to commit the murder. The prosecution said it took him 21 minutes to drive from the high school to the Best Buy parking lot and kill Lee. To which Syed responded by saying it is impossible to cover that distance and strangle someone to death in that amount of time. Koenig did the route in a little over 21 minutes.

The season ends with the mother of all loose ends. Syed was granted an appeal, which begins in June, but the truth is, we still don’t know if he did it. It’s like trying to solve the murder in Clue, but the envelope with the guilty cards has been sealed shut. However, that should not serve as a deterrent from listening to the show. Rather, any aspiring journalist would do well to listen to Serial, if only to see both a perfect example of tenacious, inspired reporting and witness a simple truth of journalism: real life stories are not obliged to satisfy a writer’s need for perfect arcs or neat endings and seldom do.