Will the FDA Crack Down on E-Cigarettes?

An important debate over the safety of the e-cigarette is raging.

January 31, 2013  |  

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Cigarette smokers in the United States have been under steady attack. To smoke is no longer considered glamorous, cool or socially acceptable. Smokers are confronted and shamed by non-smokers and have been banished to huddle and inhale in remote locations far from public view. A series of state laws prohibit smoking in almost all workplaces, restaurants and bars. The most common exceptions to smoking bans are casinos, strip clubs and brothels. Signs outside of buildings order smokers to stand a specific distance away from the entrance. 

Last May, New York City banned smoking in parks, beaches, boardwalks and pedestrian plazas. Mayor Bloomberg said, “When you ask people in our parks and beaches they say they just don’t want smokers there.” 

Smoking cigarettes, which are still legal, has become as stigmatized as smoking crack. An addiction that was once ubiquitous and promoted is now routinely demonized. 

As a result of public health campaigns waged over decades against the lies of the tobacco industry, the number of smokers in the United States has declined. Still, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 443,000 Americans die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses and secondhand smoke. The World Health Organization reports that tobacco kills nearly 6 million people worldwide every year.

Currently, about 45 million Americans smoke tobacco. Seventy percent say they would like to quit and every year 40 percent do for at least one day. The 80 percent who quit relapse within one month and each year only 3 percent of those who quit are successful.  

To help people quit, a number of nicotine replacement products are available: gums, lozenges, inhalers, nasal sprays and transdermal patches. 

The electronic cigarette (e-cig) is the newest nicotine delivery device and has been available since 2008. Electronic cigarettes look and feel like cigarettes but with one crucial difference: They don’t contain tobacco. Smoking-caused disease is a consequence of repeated exposure to carcinogens in tobacco smoke, not to the ingestion of nicotine.

About 2.5 million people use e-cigarettes in the U.S., according to an estimate by the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association. The number of e-cig smokers is sure to grow as they become more widely available and the cost drops. The price of a starter kit ranges from between $60 to $100. Cartridges of liquid nicotine, one equals one pack of cigarettes, costs about $2. 

Big Tobacco views e-cigarette companies as a threat to its profits and is moving to buy them up. Forbes reports that Lorillard, the third largest tobacco company, just bought Blu Ecigs for $135 million. The company earned $30 million in revenue in 2011 and the electronic cigarette market as a whole, generates between $250 million to $500 million. With a long track record of addicting people to tobacco through aggressive marketing campaigns, deception and disinformation, the danger is that these corporations will do the same with e-cigarettes.  

The battery operated e-cigarette is easy to use. An atomizer heats and vaporizes a cartridge filled with nicotine, which is inhaled by the user. The water vapor that is exhaled has no odor because there is no combustion. The e-cig contains five ingredients: nicotine, water, glycerol, propylene glycol and flavorings like cherry and vanilla. Both glycerol and propylene glycol are used in other nicotine replacement products. 

An important debate has been ignited over the safety of the e-cigarette. 

Several years ago, the Federal Drug Administration found trace amounts of toxic ingredients in several samples and attempted to regulate e-cigarettes as drug-delivery devices. A federal judge ruled in 2010 that the FDA lacked the authority. Now the FDA is moving to regulate them as tobacco products. This is nonsensical. The e-cigarette is a drug delivery device and not a tobacco product. And in a confusing move, the FDA has seized shipments of electronic cigarettes on the grounds that they are illegal drug-delivery devices.