Questions about E-cigarettes Start Debate on Regulation


As e-cigarrettes become increasingly popular, even among minors, questions about how safe the vaporizing devices are have risen, and a debate on whether they should be regulated has started within the Food and Drug Administration.

E-cigarettes have been used by many people as aids in order to quit smoking and by others as a substitute to reduce health risks associated with tobacco smoking. However, no long-term studies on the health effects of the usage of e-cigarettes have been done so far. As a consequence, it is somewhat understandable and at the same time a little disturbing, that the most vocal proponents of e-cigs are also sellers and distributors of the product, so they are not without a vested interest in the issue.

To people who do not know what e-cigarettes are, a brief explanation is that they are battery-powered vaporizers that allow a person to inhale the fumes of a liquid solution, sometimes containing nicotine, and sometimes a flavorant as an addition to nicotine; but in other cases composed of only flavorant, without any nicotine. Proponents of this product advance their cause by saying that this product does not contain tobacco, nor the many additives that mass-produced cigarettes contain, nor do they produce the massive amounts of tar and other byproducts of combustion that conventional cigarettes cause to accumulate in the human lung.

Another benefit of e-cigarrettes is that using this product is substantially cheaper compared to conventional cigarettes. I spoke to somebody who has tried both the rechargeable e-cigs and the disposable, much cheaper kind. He described the disposable devices as feeling like inhaling burnt plastic. The high-end vaporizer was described as much more pleasant; but no substitute for a real cigarette. It should be mentioned that this person is not using these devices as an aid to stop smoking. He also expressed annoyance at the fact that the rechargeable e-cigs have an LED that lights up as the device is being used, which from his tone I suspect he finds a tacky feature of the apparatus.

Now here is where the issue of e-cigarettes gets hairy and where questions and the drive to regulate arises: Some of the solutions that are available for use with rechargeable e-cigs contain “synthetic marijuana.” Just as has happened with “bath salts,” in the case of “synthetic marijuana,” which is an absolute misnomer (seriously, just legalize the plant. I would much rather my daughter smoke a joint, or even a whole bunch of them in college than the alternative) a number of recreational drugs have infiltrated the market. However; “synthetic marijuana” is not artificially synthesized THC. It is a chemical devised to mimic the effects of marijuana, and just as in the case of “bath salts” whenever US, and EU authorities ban a particular component of the drug’s formula, the manufacturers already have another slightly different product ready to launch under a slightly different name, or sometimes under the same name; but different composition and they do not test it on guinea pigs, much less humans, first.

The chemicals are then sold under different guises, such as incense, plant food, bath salts, etc. and always labeled as not fit for human consumption in order to avoid liability. In the case of “synthetic marijuana” these compounds are known as canabinoids. Substances with parts of the molecules are replaced by other elements, some of which can boost the intoxicating effects of regular THC as much as 25 times. Because e-cigs are largely unregulated, in many places selling these products to minors is perfectly legal, as is using them in no-smoking areas.

There is now a move within the FDA to regulate e-cigarettes; but it is not without obstacles, as the proponents of the devices have not claimed that they are a medical device to quit smoking, as nicotine gum and patches are considered. Instead e-cig proponents have argued that these products should be regulated just as tobacco products are, except that the fact that there is no actual tobacco in the solutions for e-cigarettes makes them exempt under current standards from most existing laws. That basically means that the feds are playing catch-up because they somehow decided that prohibition was a good option, whereas history has shown unequivocally that this is not the case.

As questions over the safety of e-cigarettes arise, the FDA has decided to issue new regulations over tobacco products. It is unclear whether those measures will apply to e-cigs and if so, when. The debate has started; but when will it end, and how?

By Milton Ruiz

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