“Mind if I vape?”
The question may become more common as electronic cigarettes become more popular. The answer, however, remains elusive. Etiquette aside, the health effects of inhaling nicotine vapor (hence the term) are largely unknown. More research is clearly needed, but in the meantime, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has to start regulating e-cigarettes.
U.S. consumers will spend $1 billion on battery-powered smokes this year, 10 times more than they did four years ago. Are e-cigarettes, which come in such flavors as chocolate and butter rum, a benign device to help people stop smoking? How safe, compared with tobacco smoke, is the vapor they create?
No one knows. The small studies that have been done so far hint at both pros and cons; one found that smokers cut back on real cigarettes after trying the electronic kind, while another found particles of metal and silicates in e-cigarette vapor that could cause breathing problems. That there are more than 200 brands containing varying levels of nicotine and other substances only makes it harder to assess their safety.
To begin, e-cigarette makers should be required to report and label all ingredients in the nicotine solutions they use. Even though these deliver fewer poisons than are found in traditional cigarettes, they nevertheless have been found to contain carcinogenic nitrosamines and other harmful impurities derived from the tobacco, as well as the additive diethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze.
Manufacturers should also disclose the amount of nicotine that can be inhaled from their e-cigarettes. Today’s models haven’t been found to give users as large a hit of nicotine as regular cigarettes do, but that may not always be the case.
Then there is the issue of flavoring — something the FDA forbids in standard cigarettes. All electronic cigarettes are flavored, so to ban flavoring would be to ban the product entirely. But it’s possible to allow tobacco- or even mint-flavored e-cigarettes and still ban or restrict flavors designed to appeal to children.
While they’re at it, the FDA should also ban sales to those younger than 18 and restrict e-cigarette marketing and advertisements in much the same way it limits them for cigarettes. States and cities, meanwhile, should include e-cigarettes in their restrictions on smoking in public places and office buildings.
Bloomberg News (Aug. 19)