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Blair Horner: Regulating E-Cigarettes

Blair Horner of NYPIRG
Blair Horner

Last week, legislation was introduced in New York City to regulate the use of electronic cigarettes.

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.

Consumers are lighting up electronic cigarettes in restaurants and other public places – places in which tobacco smoking is prohibited.  The rationale for the legislation is to help address the possible conflict between customers or employees and managers who cannot often differentiate between regular and electronic smoking.

In addition to the expanded use of these products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that e-cigarettes may contain ingredients that are known to be toxic to humans, and may contain other ingredients that may not be safe.

Moreover, clinical studies about the safety of these products have not been submitted to FDA, thus 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.

Beyond the possible health problems faced by adult users, these products are also being used by children.  According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the percentage of middle- and high-school students who use electronic cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012.  The CDC also found that teenagers who used e-cigarettes could become addicted to nicotine and go on to smoke regular cigarettes.
One of the reasons for kids’ use is that, like the tobacco industry, e-cig companies are developing products that are attractive to children.  Some electronic cigarettes, for example, come flavored with names like “Vanilla Dreams, Smooth Chocolate, Mocha Mist, Green Apple and Strawberry Freeze.”  Those candy-tasting e-cigarettes entice minors to give it a try.

So, while the industry claims that their products are safe and help smokers to quit – without giving off tobacco smoke, there is a growing movement to regulate these products.

New York and Chicago are among the first large cities to consider banning e-cigarettes. New Jersey, North Dakota and Utah have recently included electronic cigarettes in their bans on smoking in workplaces.  So have dozens of localities, including Suffolk County, on Long Island.

But the problem is one that must be addressed nationally.  Since there are no product safety standards, it is critical that the FDA act.  The FDA must develop and implement regulations extending its authority to cover e-cigarettes and then develop and implement a regulatory scheme for e-cigarettes. 

In terms of local action, there is logic to restricting e-cigarette use since there is no evidence that the vapors from these products are safe and they do create enforcement confusion for local health officials.

But it would be best that the FDA sets product safety standards as well as regulations to ensure that the promises made by the companies that their products help smokers quit are in fact true.

That’s all for now.  I’ll be keeping an eye on the Capitol and will talk to you again next week.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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

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