Guest Editorial: FDA e-cig regulations hit mark
E-cigarettes could turn out to be either a savior that helps addicted smokers quit or a lure that hooks a whole new generation on nicotine.
While science tries to decode those conflicting signals, the federal government took the responsible step Thursday to regulate electronic cigarettes in a way that tries to head off the worst outcome while still allowing potential benefits of vaping to emerge.
The new regulations, to go into effect in August, would ban sales to minors, require warning labels, ban the distribution of free samples and, most important, require makers of e-cigarettes that hit the market after Feb. 15, 2007, to go through a government approval process. Most e-cigarettes — whether made by tobacco giants or mom-and-pop stores — will fall under the stricture, giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to look at everything from ingredients to health risks.
Until now, e-cigarettes — battery-operated inhalers that contain nicotine, the powerfully addictive substance in cigarettes — have been marketed, as an FDA official noted Thursday, in a "wild, wild West" environment where anything goes.
Once before, the nation let an addictive product get by with little regulation. By the time the surgeon general first warned of cigarettes' deadly dangers in 1964, about four in 10 Americans were already hooked. It has taken more than 50 years and a costly war on smoking to cut that adult rate in half and to bring teen smoking down to about 9 percent.
No wonder the government and public health advocates are wary of these new “vaping” products, which also contain nicotine, and some of which are made by the same companies that brought the nation Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man.
While advocates for e-cigarettes talk about their potential upside in the future — getting smokers to quit — they seldom acknowledge the facts on the ground right now: E-cig use among teenagers is exploding. Last year, 16 percent of high school students used e-cigarettes at least once in the past month, making the devices more popular than traditional cigarettes among teens, according to a national survey by the federal government. That’s up from 1.5 percent in 2011 — an astounding rise.
Promoters argue that teens are switching to a safer product. Great if true. But some earlier data show that many teens who use e-cigarettes have not smoked traditional cigarettes before. Exactly how many fit that description now is a key question that researchers need to sort out.
Industry players also underscore that their products are only for adults. Their advertising says otherwise: The women who vape are sexy and glamorous, the men rugged and rebellious, the very themes that attracted generations of teens to traditional cigarettes. In stores, e-cigarettes are sold above ice cream freezers, next to candy and in flavors that include Cherry Crush and Gummy Bear. About 85 percent of youths who had used e-cigs in the past 30 days used ones that were flavored.
It’s actually past the time when the FDA ought to be holding the industry to some standards.
E-cigarette proponents assert that the new regulation will work like a ban because many makers will be unable to get through an expensive and time-consuming application process. The FDA acknowledges it will cost “several hundred thousand dollars” for each e-cig formulation. For major players, this won’t be a problem. More to the point, is that a good excuse for allowing the public to ingest vapor without knowing what’s in it or the potential risks? Of course not.
Science will answer all these important questions about e-cigarettes. Meanwhile, a tough watchdog is needed to ensure that teenagers in particular aren’t vaping themselves into some new and dangerous addiction.