A growing number of smokers are turning to electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) to get their nicotine fix instead of smoking traditional cigarettes. Is "vaping" better than smoking? The e-cigarette industry would like us to believe that it is. But more research needs to be done, and federal regulation is needed.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently does not regulate the manufacture, marketing and sale of e-cigarettes. In New York State, they cannot be sold to minors, but other states are still trying to determine how to deal with this relatively new product. As Mitch Zeller, Director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, has said, "Right now, it's the wild, wild west." Buyer beware.
E-cigarettes contain liquid nicotine cartridges. Because they are not regulated and standardized, e-cigarettes contain widely varying levels of nicotine, which is a highly addictive drug. Nicotine can be lethal if delivered in high doses. There is also no standardization of the type of liquid nicotine in the cartridges. A new study shows they contain volatile organic compounds, and the FDA has warned that e-cigarettes "contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals."
E-cigarettes can be sold without a license, so you can find them in most convenience stores, even those that don't sell tobacco products. They are sold in dozens of candy and fruit flavors (including chocolate, cola, cherry and bubble gum) that appeal to youth.
E-cigarettes are big business. This year, e-cigarette retail sales could hit $1 billion. If online sales are included, the figure jumps to $1.7 billion. Wanting a piece of the profits, Big Tobacco companies including Altria, Reynolds American and Lorillard have all announced plans to launch new or revamped e-cigarettes.
A few tobacco control advocates argue that e-cigarettes show promise because they may be less harmful than traditional cigarettes. But we've heard the "reduce risk" sales pitch before. Indeed, some current e-cigarette ads are strikingly similar to the deceptive ads Big Tobacco used to mislead people into believing they could reduce their risk by switching brands or converting to "lite" cigarettes.
Some suggest that e-cigarettes can be a valauble tool to help smokers quit. However, when the FDA tried to regulate e-cigarettes as cessation devices that delivered nicotine, the e-cigarette industry sued the FDA to prevent them from doing so. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), "There is currently no conclusive scientific evidence that e-cigarettes promote long-term cessation, and e-cigarettes are not included as a recommended smoking cessation method by the U.S. Public Health Service."
Simply put, we need additional studies to gather data on safety and efficacy as a cessation aide, and e-cigarettes need to be regulated.
In the meantime, the industry is aggressively marketing e-cigarettes, including television ads that use popular celebrities to sell them. Enticed by cheaper prices, fruit-flavors and "vaping" movie stars, we are concerned that youth and new smokers will use e-cigarettes as nicotine starter kits that could lead them to smoking traditional cigarettes and a lifetime of nicotine addiction. A recent survey conducted by the Florida Department of Health found that e-cigarette use among our youth is on the rise. The study showed that 8.4% of public high school students tried electronic cigarettes in 2012, a 40% increase since 2011.
Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the FDA's Commissioner of Food and Drugs, has said, "The FDA is concerned about the safety of these products [e-cigarettes] and how they are marketed to the public."
We are too. We want to protect the next generation from a lifetime of nicotine addiction.