As electronic cigarettes become more popular, the health effects of inhaling nicotine vapor are largely unknown. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has to start regulating e-cigarettes.
U.S. consumers will spend $1 billion on battery-powered smokes this year, 10 times more than four years ago. Are e-cigarettes a benign device to help stop smoking? Or are they a new way to feed an old addiction? How safe is the vapor they create?
No one knows. Small studies hint at both pros and cons; one found that smokers cut back on real cigarettes after trying the electronic kind, while another found particles of metal and silicates in e-cigarette vapor that could cause breathing problems. That there are more than 200 brands containing varying levels of nicotine and other substances only makes it harder to assess their safety.
The FDA has indicated it will begin to regulate e- cigarettes this fall. E-cigarettes are not known to be lethal. Wariness is warranted, but it’s safe to assume that their vapors are not nearly as dangerous as tobacco smoke.
The FDA’s approach should be two-pronged: It should find out whether e-cigarettes are indeed safe. And while it does, it should ensure they remain restricted to adults informed of the potential risks.
E-cigarette makers should be required to report and label all ingredients in the nicotine solutions they use. Manufacturers should also disclose the amount of nicotine that can be inhaled.
Then there is the issue of flavoring – something the FDA forbids in standard cigarettes. All electronic cigarettes are flavored, so to ban flavoring would be to ban the product.
But it’s possible to allow flavored e-cigarettes and still ban or restrict flavors designed to appeal to children.
The FDA should also ban sales to those younger than 18 and restrict e-cigarette marketing and advertisements in much the same way it limits them for cigarettes. As for health warnings, the agency will need to wait for more data before deciding what exactly they should say.
It would be great if e-cigarettes turned out to be the breakthrough that gets people to give up smoking tobacco. In the meantime, we should all be careful that e-cigarettes not perpetuate a habit that society has come a long way toward snuffing out.
Sensible regulation can help protect that progress.