The surging popularity of electronic cigarettes among teenagers risks making them an alarming new gateway to addiction. The Food and Drug Administration and other regulators need to catch up with these battery-powered nicotine-delivery to evaluate their long term consequences.
Some companies selling the devices are using tactics from the bad old days of unfettered cigarette marketing, such as television advertising and pitches by celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Jenny McCarthy. They're also pushing e-cigarettes with kid-magnet flavors, such as bubble gum, cherry and cotton candy, that are banned in conventional cigarettes. And based on a survey the Centers for Disease Control released last week, the marketing appears to be working.
The proportion of students who reported having ever used e-cigarettes last year doubled from 2011 to 10 percent for high school students and to 2.7 percent for middle school students. Even more alarming, 7.2 percent of high school e-cigarette users and 20.3 percent of those in middle school reported they have never smoked conventional cigarettes. So an estimated 160,000 teens were introduced to nicotine last year via e-cigarettes, according to the CDC. That's cause for concern that teens who start with e-cigarettes may be on a course to a lifelong addiction to conventional cigarettes.
The e-cigarette industry says its products are marketed to adult smokers. And there is some evidence that they are effective as an aid for smokers struggling to quit. But in 2009 Congress gave the FDA authority to regulate cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. Currently it can and does regulate e-cigarettes only if they are marketed for therapeutic purposes. More research is needed to assess the health benefits and risks of e-cigarettes that also deliver other chemicals, such as propylene glycol, in the vapor users inhale.
The FDA is writing a proposed rule that would extend its authority over tobacco products to include e-cigarettes. It could be available for public comment in October. It's about time.