The comment period for proposed Food and Drug Administration regulations of electronic cigarettes ended more than a year ago, but the agency says it is waiting for the results of many studies before deciding what to do. Yet millions of Americans, in the meantime, are ingesting harmful chemicals, with long-term consequences.
The FDA ought to speed up its process and begin to curtail what is expected to be a $3.5 billion industry this year. Enough already is known to determine that, for instance, e-cigarettes are harmful to underage users, and that it’s too hard to know what each cigarette contains.
Too much of the debate has bogged down over questions of whether e-cigarettes help existing smokers quit their habits. The larger question, however, has to do with young people who begin using e-cigarettes without ever having smoked tobacco, and with the industry’s use of flavors such as bubble gum, vanilla, cotton candy and cherry — products that seem aimed toward young potential customers.
A recent Deseret News story by reporter Lois Collins noted that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tested various e-cigarette products and found chemicals “known to cause permanent and fatal lung disease” in some. These ingredients were not listed on the packaging. The chemicals varied in levels depending on the products, adding confusion and uncertainty for consumers.
Other experts note that the list of ingredients doesn’t always match the actual contents of e-cigarettes. Some of the liquids these cigarettes heat and vaporize, and which are inhaled by users, contain heavy metals and organic compounds.
What is known for sure is that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is both addictive and harmful, especially to young users. Last year, about 13 percent of high school students admitted using these products, according to the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey, which is a dramatic increase over previous years.
Several states already restrict the use of these products to adults, similar to conventional tobacco cigarettes. But these restrictions have little effect when unrestricted advertising makes the products appear alluring and cool, attracting young users who will find ways to circumvent age restrictions.
A great deal of uncertainty surrounds claims over whether e-cigarettes help current smokers kick the habit. It appears safe to say these products are not as harmful as conventional cigarettes, given that they contain no tar or tobacco. But using cigarettes as a measuring rod for product safety is ridiculous. E-cigarettes may be better alternatives for existing smokers, but they are not healthy products for nonsmokers to begin using.
The health industry, with help from the federal government, has come a long way in reducing tobacco use in the United States during the more than 50 years since the surgeon general determined cigarettes are harmful to health. E-cigarettes may not rise to the same level of public health risk, but they do represent the incursion of a harmful inhaling product upon a vulnerable young generation.
For the sake of the nation’s young people, if nothing else, the federal government ought to curtail advertising and require strict controls over the ingredients of these products, helping state laws become more effective.