Critics who argue that the regulations the Food and Drug Administration has proposed on e-cigarettes were long in coming and don’t go far enough might have a point. That shouldn’t, however, obscure the worth of the steps the FDA is taking.
“It’s a huge change,” said Margaret A. Hamburg, who’s been FDA commissioner for five years.
And it can be a change for the better for an industry that’s still in its infancy but that has grown at a rapid pace. Use of e-cigarettes among middle school and high school students alone doubled from 2011 to 2012. And that increase came before the big tobacco companies recognized the profit potential of e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are comparable in size to traditional cigarettes. But rather than hold tobacco, the battery powered devices heat a liquid solution that contains nicotine, turning the solution to vapor for users to inhale. Murray Kessler, CEO of Lorillard, has predicted that e-cigarettes will be “one of the greatest harm-reduction opportunities ever presented to a smoker.”
But being less harmful than traditional cigarettes is not the same as being harmless. Though they don’t contain many of the toxic ingredients that traditional cigarettes do, e-cigarettes can still addict users to nicotine. And public health advocates worry that too little research has been done — in part because e-cigarettes are still a relatively new phenomenon — to fully understand the risks.
As for the proposed regulations, among the most useful are a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and a ban on the distribution of free samples. Retailers would be required to check proof of age in selling them. Sales of e-cigarettes also would be prohibited in vending machines in places minors can go. E-cigarettes’ attraction for youth is of particular concern because a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics found, among other things, that young e-cigarette users were more likely to become tobacco smokers.
In addition, the FDA wants to require manufacturers to include warnings that e-cigarettes contain nicotine and to disclose e-cigarettes’ other ingredients. Also, new brands would have to win FDA approval before going on sale and existing products would have to justify their presence on the market.
These proposals all have merit. Yes, restrictions on television marketing and online sales would have been worthy additions, as would restricting sweeteners and flavors likely to attract young users. But their absence now doesn’t preclude their inclusion in the future.
What’s more important is that the FDA has formally recognized the potential hazards of e-cigarettes and is responding appropriately.