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The time to regulate e-cigarettes is now

January 14, 2014

The hard-won public health triumph over the cigarette may be under threat from a new player on the scene: the electronic cigarette, a battery-powered vaporizing device that simulates tobacco smoking, supplying nicotine and often flavor, but without tobacco.

For most of the 20th century, Big Tobacco companies argued that the hardworking tobacco farmer was the ultimate victim in any attempt to regulate their industry. It’s a familiar argument: that industry regulation just hurts the little guy.

Today, e-cigarettes are largely produced in China. No U.S. farmers or factory workers have livelihoods that depend on e-cigs. But if the e-cig industry continues unregulated, it may get a bigger foothold in the U.S. economy, and public health may again become beholden to a small handful of heartstring-pulling stakeholders who speak on behalf of an even smaller number of corporate executives.

E-cigs are much less pernicious than a tobacco cigarette and may even have a public health benefit if they can help smokers quit. But because of the regulatory vacuum, the public doesn’t know, exactly, what’s in e-cigs; neither do we know much about how people use them.

If e-cigarettes can be cessation devices, as many hope, then they should be regulated like the patch or nicotine gum. But other data raise the possibility that, in fact, e-cigs could be “activation devices,” particularly for young people; or equally problematic, that they actually weaken smokers’ ability and resolve to quit smoking. If that’s the case, there should be common-sense restrictions on flavor additives or advertising.

Such regulations have obvious benefits: They would help consumers make more informed choices, reduce youth consumption, and help preserve the public’s antismoking victory.

And, for now, the economic costs are minimal. No state economy is today dependent on the production of e-cigarettes. This may not be the case forever, though. As electronic cigarettes grow in popularity, more Americans may find themselves invested in those little glowing cylinders.

Swift regulation by the Food and Drug Administration can help ensure that parts of the U.S. economy do not, once again, become dependent on nicotine.

—Christian Science Monitor

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