Regulating E-Cigarettes: Is it All Hot Air?

Regulating E-Cigarettes: Is it All Hot Air? Vape, via Wikimedia Commons

The production and sale of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, is one of the fastest growing industries in America. The number of e-cigarette users quadrupled from 2009 to 2010 alone, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed rule in April requesting changes to the categorization of e-cigarettes that would give the agency authority to regulate them. Sales of e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, with an estimated market in the United States at $2.5 billion dollars, according to a Wells Fargo analyst in Reuters’ Aug. 1 story, “Trendy Vapor Tanks Muscling Into E-Cigarette Sales.” But unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes have largely escaped regulation.

The FDA’s proposed rule could expand the agency’s tobacco authority to cover additional products that meet the definition of “tobacco product,” such as e-cigarettes. But as it stands today, when Mitch Zeller, the director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, was asked in the April 24 episode of PBS’ Newshour what is known about the health concerns surrounding e-cigarettes, Zeller compared it to the Wild West: “It’s buyer beware.”

The range of health concerns leaves lawmakers in a quandary. Will e-cigarette’s exotic flavors, ranging from apple pie to watermelon, introduce the thrill of smoking to school-aged children? What should be regulated to ensure e-cigarettes will not explode, potentially causing serious injuries to consumers and their property?

The dearth of science that would otherwise shed some answers to the questions about the safety of e-cigarettes stems from the lack of regulation. Without regulation requiring it, there is little motivation for the companies that profit from the product to invest in research.

In one analysis of cartridges from two e-cigarette samples, the FDA found one sample with diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze, according to a summary of results published by the FDA in April, “Laboratory Analysis of Electronic Cigarettes Conducted By FDA.” The analysis also showed that the product contained detectable levels of known carcinogens.

Another study cited by the FDA in its proposed rule found 22 chemical elements, some of which can cause adverse health effects in the respiratory and nervous systems, contained in e-cigarette aerosol. These included lead, nickel and chromium.

Aside from the potential harmful effects from chemicals, e-cigarettes have caused injury to people by exploding or catching fire when their lithium-ion batteries reportedly combusted. A Mother Jones article provides more than a dozen instances of such occurrences in its April 17 article, “Should You Be Worried About Your E-Cigarette Exploding?

Although e-cigarettes have been around for nearly a decade, many anti-smoking advocacy groups express not only their concerns about the product’s safety but also with the industry’s marketing tactics. Without adequate regulation, e-cigarettes remain free from warning labels and advertising restrictions like those typically reserved for traditional tobacco products.

In 1971, Congress approved legislation banning the advertisement of “cigarettes and little cigars on any medium of electronic communication.” But without similar regulations controlling e-cigarettes, NJOY, one of the industry’s leading e-cigarette producers, has aired commercials during the last two Super Bowls. In 2013, an ad showed an attractive young man in a cloud of smoke enjoying the “look, feel and flavor of the real thing” with the commercial ending with: “Cigarettes, you’ve met your match.”

These types of ads may increase nicotine addiction among young people and prompt teens to try more harmful tobacco products. Because there is no federal age restriction for purchasing e-cigarettes, manufacturers dispense nicotine in a myriad of playful, colorful, candy-themed flavors. Meanwhile, marketers of e-cigarettes play semantic games by camouflaging the names of their gadgets by referring to them as e-hookahs, hookah-pens and vape pipes, all in effort to hide the ignominy associated with “cigarettes” and appeal to and target a new generation of youths. While some states have passed laws prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, the lack of regulation makes it easy for kids to buy these devices at unregulated “vape shops” or online.

There are valid arguments, however, against the FDA’s proposed regulation of e-cigarettes. No doubt, tobacco and tar kill people. There is no definitive evidence that nicotine is harmful or dangerous, aside from being addictive like caffeine. In fact, nicotine alternatives, such as patches and gum, have been used for decades in curbing smokers’ cravings for a light. Like these products, e-cigarettes may help people kick the habit. Additionally, federal government oversight could financially strangle small businesses with the added cost of complying with stringent regulations.

E-cigarettes are not fad. In fact, the sale of e-cigarettes is projected to overtake sales of traditional cigarettes in the next decade, according to Bloomberg Industries. Because e-cigarettes will continue to have a profound impact on the public health, safety and economy, some level of regulation is overdue.