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Blair Horner: Keeping Kids from Buying Electronic Cigarettes


You see the advertisements everywhere: electronic cigarettes – which don’t use tobacco – are exempt from public smoking restrictions and help those who wish to quit.  But are the claims true?

While it is true that these devices don’t use tobacco, there is little scientific evidence that e-cigarettes can help smokers to quit.  In addition, since there is no regulation of these devices, the quality and safety of these products cannot be assured.

For those who don’t smoke, here’s some background.  Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution inside a cigarette-shaped tube that users draw on to inhale a nicotine-filled vapor.  They are nicotine delivery devices – but without the tobacco.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, e-cigarettes may contain ingredients that are known to be toxic to humans, and may contain other ingredients that may not be safe. Additionally, these products may be attractive to young people and may lead kids to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes, which are known to cause disease and lead to premature death.  Because clinical studies about the safety and efficacy of these products have not been submitted to FDA, consumers currently have no way of knowing:

·         whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use,

·         what types or concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals are found in these products, or

·         how much nicotine they are inhaling when they use these products.

Given the possibility of heath hazards from e-cigarette use, the FDA moved to regulate these devices.  However, that move did not hold up in court.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (Sottera, Inc. v. Food & Drug Administration) ruled that e-cigarettes and other nicotine-containing products are not drugs or devices unless they are marketed for therapeutic purposes, but that these nicotine-containing products can be regulated as “tobacco products” under existing federal law.   The FDA did not appeal the decision.  As a result, the FDA has announced it intends to develop regulations for electronic cigarettes as tobacco products.

That promises to be a lengthy process.  FDA must first develop and implement a regulation extending its authority to cover “other tobacco products,” including e-cigarettes, and then develop and implement a specific regulatory scheme for e-cigarettes.  Many observers have concluded that e-cigarettes will remain unregulated by the federal government for years.

However, this does give the state the opportunity to act.  The most obvious step is to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors.

Data regarding use of e-cigarettes by children is sparse.   The 2011 Florida Youth Tobacco Survey showed that 6 percent of the 6,163 high school students surveyed reported they had used an e-cigarette at least once, and 3.1 percent reported using at least one in the past 30 days (the standard definition of “current user”). 

That finding is consistent with some other states.  And given that it is currently legal to sell to minors, it’s not surprising that some buy them.  Moreover, some electronic cigarettes come flavored with names like “Vanilla Dreams, Smooth Chocolate, Mocha Mist, Green Apple and Strawberry Freeze.”  Those candy-tasting e-cigarettes also entice minors to give it a try.

Once young people start, it will be hard to stop getting the nicotine “kick.”  Some may decide to buy cigarettes.

New York can put limits on the use of electronic cigarettes by prohibiting sale to minors. 


Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.