FDA announces plans to regulate e-cigarettes and more

The government’s goal is to limit teen access to the electronic devices and the addictive nicotine in their vapors

These e-cigarettes look similar to regular cigarettes. But users inhale nicotine-laced vapors instead of tobacco smoke.

Joseph Morris/Flicker

Citing its concern for teens, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans on April 24 to regulate a new range of tobacco products. These include not only cigars and hookahs but also electronic cigarettes. The agency said it was prompted to take new measures as a way to keep these products out of the hands — and lungs — of youths.

Recent studies have indicated that e-cigarette makers are targeting the sale of their products to teens. In addition, studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that teen use of cigars and hookahs is rising rapidly. The FDA’s newly proposed rule “is the latest step in our efforts to make the next generation tobacco-free,” says Kathleen Sebelius. She heads the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s the parent agency of FDA and CDC.        

Most people recognize that smoking tobacco products, such as cigars and hookahs, is risky. E-cigarettes don’t burn tobacco. Instead, they heat up a mix of chemicals to create a vapor that users breathe in. This practice is called vaping. Some groups have argued that because vapers don’t breathe in tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes should not be regulated like tobacco. Still, FDA considers them “tobacco products.” That’s because their vapors deliver nicotine. And e-cigarette manufacturers obtain that addictive chemical from tobacco.

E-cigarettes were developed as a way to help smokers stop using tobacco. But more and more people have been choosing to use these devices for fun. Already one in every 10 U.S. high school students has tried electronic cigarettes. Among middle school students, the share who have tried these devices is one-third that high already — and climbing.

Currently, 28 states ban the sale of e-cigarettes (and of the flavored solutions that they burn) to anyone under the age of 18. But 22 states still allow minors to buy them. The new FDA regulation would overrule those states and ban the sale of e-cigarette products to youth. And it would extend that ban to cigars, tobacco that would be used in hookahs, nicotine gels and pipe tobacco.

The FDA also would require that stores check IDs to confirm that teens aren’t buying these products. And it would ban the sale of such products through vending machines (except at sites where minors aren’t allowed access). Free giveaways of vaping products also would be banned.

What’s more, manufacturers would have to report to FDA all of the ingredients that go into the products now being proposed for new controls. That would represent the biggest change for e-cigarettes. Currently, no company has to divulge precisely what is in the flavored liquids that are burned in the electronic wands of e-cigarettes. Companies also don’t have to report how much nicotine is in their products, even though that chemical is toxic and addictive. Indeed, recent reports of poisonings linked to e-cigarettes may be due to their nicotine.

A report from a group of senators and congressmen that was released one week ago argued that federal laws also should prevent:

  • the sale of vaping products over the Internet
  • the sale of vaping solutions that appear aimed at the youth market, such as ones that taste like candy, ice-cream, cookies, soft-drinks and fruits. (U.S. law already prohibits the sale of regular cigarettes with such flavorings to minors.)
  • and advertising of vaping products on radio and TV. (Such ads are not allowed for conventional tobacco products, such as regular cigarettes.)

The new FDA proposal does not address any of those issues. Yet. But it also hasn’t ruled out that it might impose tougher limits as more information on the safety — or hazards — of these products emerge.

“It is imperative that the FDA regulates all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and cigars,” says Margaret Foti. She runs the American Association for Cancer Research, based in Philadelphia, Pa. Without the new rules, users, particularly the nation’s children, will be at risk, her group charges.

The American Medical Association added its support to FDA’s new proposal to regulate additional tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, cigars and hookahs. Its plans “are a notable and important step to improve public health,” says Ardis Dee Hoven. She’s president of the AMA. But it’s only a first step, she adds. Her group recommends that FDA study the issue more deeply. Once scientists better understand why these products are so appealing to youth, more steps might be taken to “continue to drive down use of these products.” And that could “prevent the negative health effects of nicotine,” her group says.

FDA’s new proposal “is long overdue,” the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids said in a statement. This group is based in Washington, D.C. FDA said three years ago that it might regulate these products, the group notes. That agency and the Obama Administration “must now move as quickly as possible to finalize this rule and do so within 12 months,” the group says. It also wants FDA to quickly ban ads aimed at kids and the sale of youth-oriented vaping flavors. Charges the group: “There can be no excuse for further delay.”

Power Words

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC   An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CDC is charged with protecting public health and safety by working to control and prevent disease, injury and disabilities. It does this by investigating disease outbreaks, tracking exposures by Americans to infections and toxic chemicals, and regularly surveying diet and other habits among a representative cross-section of all Americans.

e-cigarette (short for electronic cigarette)   Battery-powered devices that disperse nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale.

Food and Drug Administration  (or FDA) A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, FDA is charged with overseeing the safety of many products. For instance, it is responsible for making sure drugs are properly labeled, safe and effective; that cosmetics and food supplements are safe and properly labeled; and that tobacco products are regulated.

hookah    A water pipe used to cool smoke — usually tobacco smoke — that will be inhaled. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “hookah smoking carries many of the same health risks as cigarettes.”

nicotine  A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the ‘buzz’ effect associated with smoking. It also is highly addictive, making it hard for smokers to give us their use of cigarettes. The chemical is also a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.

tobacco  A plant cultivated for its leaves. Dried tobacco leaves are burned in cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Tobacco leaves are also sometimes chewed. The main constituent of tobacco leaves is nicotine.

toxic   Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms.

vaping    Slang term for the inhalation of vapors from e-cigarettes.

vapors    Fumes released when a liquid transforms to a gas, usually as a result of heating.

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