E-cigarettes explosion onto market comes under fire

Posted on Monday, October 7, 2013 at 10:30 am

Suddenly, e-cigarettes seem to be everywhere. And with them have come a host of questions. Can e-cigarettes damage health over the long run, even though they appear to be better for smokers than regular cigarettes? Perhaps more importantly, will these jauntily-marketed devices hook more young people on nicotine and turn them eventually into standard cigarette smokers?

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine by heating liquid into a vapor. Users are spared the toxins that arise from combustion. Many adults who have had trouble quitting have switched to e-cigarettes, or used them to cut back.

But e-cigarettes are now being aggressively advertised on TV, often with the same strategies that hooked generations on the glamour of smoking. They are manufactured in a dizzying array of flavors, including a number blatantly aimed at children: gummy bear, for instance, and bubble gum. Last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of middle and high school students who have tried e-cigarettes reached 10 percent, doubling the previous year’s figure. Annual sales are expected to surpass $1billion this year.

More than two dozen states, including Rhode Island, have attempted to ban sales to minors. The General Assembly approved a ban last summer, but it was vetoed by Gov. Chafee. He echoed the concerns of anti-smoking advocates, who argued that the bill was essentially a wily industry ploy to have e-cigarettes treated differently from standard cigarettes, freeing e-cigarettes from the same rigorous regulations.

The federal Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, has been moving slowly toward regulating e-cigarettes. It received a prod last week from the states. A letter signed by 40 attorneys general (including those from Rhode Island and Massachusetts) urged the agency to regulate e-cigarettes, in much the way it currently regulates tobacco products. The agency hopes to unveil proposed rules by the end of the month.

Caution is certainly called for. If e-cigarettes do help adults quit or cut back on smoking, that is all to the good. But more research is needed on the long-term health effects of these devices.

More troubling is the effort to make e-cigarettes look harmless and fun, in an appeal to a new generation. Nicotine is highly addictive, and can affect the neurological development of minors. Aggressive marketing of e-cigarettes could reverse decades of slow progress in reducing tobacco use in this country. The FDA should not shrink from protecting public health.

 -The Providence Journal, Rhode Island

Headlines of the Day