Are electronic cigarettes a fad or a marketing phenomenon that will have tremendous staying power? E-cigarettes have gone from being invented less than 10 years ago to a $2 billion industry with sales of 3.5 million in 2012. The number of U.S. stores selling them has quadrupled in just the past year. With that success comes controversy, though, as e-cigarettes are facing a slew of regulations and federal levels that treat them like tobacco products.
Right now, electronic cigarettes are in a regulatory gray area, but that is expected to change shortly. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue regulations giving them control over e-cigarettes. The FDA is employing a 2009 law that gave them authority to regulate cigarettes and smokeless tobacco as well as claim other tobacco products to be within its jurisdiction. Lobbyists for e-cigarette companies, tobacco makers, physician groups, and public health agencies have made their opinions known to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which is currently reviewing the FDA proposal to bring e-cigarettes under its jurisdiction. At stake is whether e-cigarettes will be required to register with the FDA, pay inspection fees, list their ingredients, obtain approval prior to launching new products, and restrict sales to children.
In the absence of federal rules, states, cities, school districts and other entities are developing their own regulations and even enacting bans on e-cigarettes. Boston and New York are two cities that have taken action. Utah is expected to enact a bill prohibiting e-cigarette sales without a license and to people under 19.
For those unfamiliar with electronic or e-cigarettes, they were developed by Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist whose father died of lung cancer. The first ones came from Ruyan, the company he worked for, in 2004. Now, e-cigarettes, sometimes called “vape pens,” come in various shapes, but most look like a long cigarette. When a user inhales, the airflow switches on a heater or atomizer, which vaporizes liquid nicotine, also called “juice,” and propylene glycol (PEG), the stuff used to create fake smoke in theaters. The user gets a puff that feel a lot like smoking tobacco and when they exhale, the cloud of PEG vapor resembles smoke. There is no tobacco in the devices, which sell for $100 on up. Refill cartridges of nicotine and PEG vary in price.
In the absence of regulations, e-cigarettes been facing none of the obstacles a tobacco product would encounter. They are smoke free, which makes them exempt from the 1970 federal ban on cigarette TV advertising. Two e-cigarette companies have run ads, including one by NJOY King during the Super Bowl.
E-cigarettes are sold at a variety of retail locations including gas stations, grocery stores and drug stores. About one-fourth of e-cigarette sales are online, which could be eliminated if the FDA places age restrictions on who can buy e-cigarettes since age cannot be verified on Internet sales.
Another area that will likely be regulated is the use of flavorings, which are banned in traditional cigarettes. Flavorings are used widely in e-cigarettes to produce tastes like cherry, coffee, chocolate and butterscotch. However, public health advocates claim flavorings attract children and may create a new generation of nicotine addicts.
The largest area of contention about e-cigarettes has been in the public health arena. Will e-cigarettes cause more or fewer people to smoke? The devices feed nicotine addiction without the toxic tar of conventional cigarettes. As a result, some are calling for the devices to be classified as aids for reducing or quitting smoking. The e-cigarette industry does not want the health-device classification, which would definitely classify their product in the scope of regulations that apply to regular cigarettes. On the other side of the equation are researchers who worry that e-cigarettes will be a gateway to traditional cigarettes and that adult smokers will stay hooked longer if they can use e-cigarettes for nicotine fixes at their desks.
That theory and skepticism about the products are fueled by the fact that several tobacco companies are now selling e-cigarettes. Lorillard Inc., maker of Newport cigarettes; R.J. Reynolds, maker of Camel cigarettes; and Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Phillip Morris, own the Blu, Vuse and Green Smoke e-cigarette brands, respectively. Realistically, the firms are looking for other successful avenues since smoking rates are now around 18 percent, a sharp decline from the 1960s, when half of all men and a third of women were smokers.
Stay tuned as the public policy debates around electronic cigarettes heat up. If the FDA does take over regulating the vape pens, things will definitely tightened up. However, it is doubtful that facing tobacco product-type regulations will slow the e-cigarettes sales juggernaut.
By Dyanne Weiss