E-cigarettes rising in popularity, but risks still unknown

What all experts do agree upon is that heightened regulation of electronic cigarettes is imperative. The FDA in 2011 announced its intent to regulate them as tobacco products rather than drug delivery devices, putting them in the same category as traditional cigarettes.

But the agency still doesn’t regulate quality control, meaning that there aren’t requirements for consistency in terms of ingredients even within the same brand. The WHO has warned that «there is no way for consumers to find out what is actually delivered by the product they have purchased.»

What’s more, many brands are flavored in order to appeal to children, and experts worry they could be a «gateway» to becoming tobacco smokers. A study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that e cigarette use among children doubled from 2011 to 2012 10 percent of high school students had smoked e cigarettes in 2012, and among those kids who had, 76 percent of them reported having smoked regular cigarettes, too.

While the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1970 required stricter warning labels on cigarette packaging and banned cigarette advertisements on television, those sorts of controls aren’t in place for e cigarettes. Manufacturers don’t have to label their products with any warnings, and TV ads for e cigarettes are unrestricted.

Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, says the FDA has been dragging its feet in terms of regulating cigarettes, and feels that indoor clean air legislation should include electronic cigarettes along with tobacco cigarettes.

«They are less polluting than cigarettes,» Glantz said, «but they are still polluting.»

As one of the nation’s foremost experts on secondhand smoke, he is the principal investigator of a new $20 million, five year study sponsored by the FDA in order to help the agency examine how it might better regulate tobacco and smoking.

But Glantz points out that regardless of what the FDA decides to do about e cigarettes, it can’t regulate where they’re smoked, because smoking bans in public places are under the jurisdiction of local governments. The Department of Transportation has, however, banned the use of e cigarettes on airplanes (PDF).

In the meantime, the FDA is in the process of drafting new proposed regulations on the advertising, ingredients and sales to minors of e cigarettes, and in September, the attorneys general from 40 states co signed a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg (PDF) urging the agency to meet its previously stated deadline of Oct. 31. The release of the draft legislation was delayed due to the government shutdown and is expected to happen this month.

Even so, while Glantz wishes the FDA would push harder to regulate electronic cigarettes, he doesn’t have much faith that it will do so. When the FDA asked him what kind of research it should be funding, he said he told the agency, «they should be funding stem cell research to grow backbones.»

Electronic cigarettes: how they are — and could be — regulated

Electronic cigarettes, or e cigarettes, are essentially nicotine delivery products, relatively new to the market with a growing following. The battery powered devices provide inhaled doses of nicotine through a vaporized solution contained in cartridges inserted into the apparatus.

In April 2011, the FDA announced plans to regulate e cigarettes as a tobacco product under the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (the Tobacco Control Act). This fact sheet explains what this announcement means, and what steps state and local governments can take to restrict e cigarette sales and use.

Electronic Cigarettes How They Are and Could Be Regulated is one of a series of fact sheets, called FDA Law Notes, that explains issues related to the 2009 FDA Law.

Be sure to check out more of our resources on regulating electronic smoking devices in your community.