With R.J. Reynolds going nationwide with its Vuse e-cigarette, and Altria planning to put its own MarkTen on shelves later this year, Big Tobacco is now fully engaged in the electronic cigarette business. That’s proof that the Food and Drug Administration waited too long to produce regulations on a fast-growing industry that FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg herself describes as the “wild, wild West.”
Unfortunately, the proposed regulations announced this spring fail to address some of the problems of inhaling vaporized liquid nicotine, the process behind e-cigarettes. The nicotine vapor is intended to help smokers quit tobacco, but many anti-smoking advocates believe it can have the opposite effect, becoming a gateway to nicotine addiction. While the proposed rules would officially ban sales of e-cigarettes to minors, the FDA would still permit the sale of e-cigarettes in candy and dessert flavors that have been shown to have special attraction to young users. And e-cigarette makers’ marketing efforts, aided by celebrity endorsements, are going unhindered. A new study in the journal Pediatrics found that youth exposure to television e-cigarette advertising increased 256 percent between 2011 and 2013. There are no public-health messages to counter the advertising.
And the news about e-cigarettes grows more worrisome: There have been reports of children poisoning themselves by ingesting liquid nicotine, new data indicating that some devices produce carcinogens when too hot, and early data also indicating that e-cigarette users are more likely to remain or become real smokers.
Hamburg said in an interview that the proposed rules were as far as the agency could go for now in establishing regulatory control over a new product. Reuters subsequently reported that the regulations had been weakened by the White House. What’s more, they won’t even take effect for several months. In the meantime, Massachusetts is among only 11 states not to have regulations of its own. In the last month alone, several states, including neighboring Rhode Island and Connecticut, have passed or enacted bans on the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Currently, 54 Massachusetts cities and towns including Boston have placed e-cigarettes under the state’s smokefree workplace ban, but half the state’s population isn’t covered. State Representative Jeffrey Sanchez of Boston has filed a bill that would ban sales to minors and prohibit the use of e-cigarettes where regular smoking is banned.
The bill is currently in the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing, where Senate co-chairman Jim Welch of West Springfield hopes for action before the end of the term. Given the vagaries of the FDA’s process, Welch said, “We have to remain vigilant.” The Legislature should approve the bill and, given the FDA’s reluctance to act, remain alert to this growing problem.