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In our opinion: FDA must consider regulating nicotine in e-cigarettes

Published: Saturday, April 19 2014 8:33 p.m. MDT

Members of Utah Vapers gather before attending a meeting concerning HB112 about electronic cigarettes at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.

Ravell Call, Deseret News Archives

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For decades, cigarette advertising has been heavily regulated on the basis that such an unhealthy product ought not be marketed to young people. Tobacco ads have been banned from television and radio since 1971. Now, companies have a variety of online outlets with which to approach underage smokers. More significantly, they have a new product that has managed to escape governmental scrutiny of traditional cigarettes.

E-cigarettes, which heat liquid nicotine into a vapor that is inhaled without creating secondhand smoke, are considered by some to be a healthier alternative to other tobacco products.

Although we are still early in the process of beginning to understand and regulate e-cigarette devices, a recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that nicotine-laced vapor generated by these devices promoted cancer in the same way as does tobacco, according to a report this week in The New York Times.

Indeed, poison control centers across the nation are receiving a growing number of calls dealing with the deleterious effects of e-cigarettes. Part of the problem is the variable nature of both quantity and the quality of the chemicals included in vapor dispensers on e-cigarette apparatus.

A previous report from The Times recounted how in February, a 2-year-old girl in Oklahoma City drank a bottle of a parent’s nicotine liquid and was rushed to an emergency room. Indeed, of the 74 e-cigarette and nicotine poisonings in Minnesota last year, 29 involved children ages 2 and under. In Oklahoma, 23 of the 25 similar cases involved children 4 and under.

The Times also reported how one woman had been admitted to the hospital with cardiac problems after the liquid was absorbed into her skin after an e-cigarette dispenser broke, spilling the liquid while she was in bed.

This kind of hazardous product ought to be subject to a regulatory scheme similar to that of tobacco. Yet so far, the FDA has not announced any plans to address the regulation of e-cigarette chemicals, marketing or distribution.

Companies selling these deadly products are exploiting this opportunity. More than 200 brand names of e-cigarettes are currently on the market, and last year more than $2 billion worth of e-cigarettes were sold. The marketing budgets of two of the companies peddling these wares increased by 300 percent over the past two years.

Even more disturbingly, evidence suggests that they are targeting young people as entry-level e-smokers. A congressional report this week called this marketing strategy clearly directed at minors and said the government needs to take additional steps to stop this.

The FDA has been dragging its heels on this issue, including the need for warnings such as are required for traditional cigarette packages. That needs to change.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in an interview with the Associated Press that he didn’t understand the FDA’s reticence. “It is clear,” Durbin said, “that the longer they wait, the more young people will be addicted."

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