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Why the FDA's e-cigarette ruling is really about youth smoking

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Today's (April 24, 2014) Food and Drug Administration proposal to regulate electronic cigarettes is a long overdue action by the Obama Administration to prevent youth smoking, say experts. The proposed ruling would not only regulate e-cigarettes, but also cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, waterpipe (or hookah) tobacco, and dissolvables not already under the FDA’s authority. While e-cigarettes were branded as a means to help smokers stop smoking, loose oversight has opened the door for many of these products to be marketed to children and youth. The FDA announced in December 2010 that it intended to regulate e-cigarettes under a 2009 law granting the agency authority over tobacco products. But it took four years for the agency to act. Today at least 1.78 million U.S. youth have used e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

For many years the American Lung Association (ALA) has spoken out on the how poorly sales and marketing of this sector of has been enforced and regulated. The lax oversight has placed youth and children at risk as many of these newer products are attractive to youth and new smokers. Products like strawberry flavored e-cigarettes, cigars packaged in bubble-gum like packaging and pen-size hookahs that look like magic markers are clearly not for adult-smoking cessation.

In an earlier statement by the ALA, the group warned that these products posed a danger to youth. "Despite announcing in 2011 that it would assert jurisdiction over tobacco products other than cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products, the Obama Administration and FDA have failed to move forward with asserting that authority, Until this occurs, there is no federal oversight or restrictions in place to protect the public health of our nation, and especially the health of our children, from these other tobacco products. In the absence of any federal oversight, the use of cigars and e-cigarettes among youth and vulnerable populations has exploded."

In September 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who used e-cigarette more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. The CDC estimated that 1.78 million U.S. youth had used e-cigarettes as of 2012. "E-cigarettes are sold in an assortment of sweet, kid-friendly flavors including “vivid vanilla,” “cherry crush” and chocolate, and they increasingly are marketed using themes and images long used to market regular cigarettes to kids," said the CDC report. "While e-cigarette manufacturers claim they only market to existing smokers, the new CDC data show their marketing is enticing kids to start what could become a lifelong addiction to tobacco products. The e-cigarette industry portrays itself as wanting to help solve the tobacco problem, but its marketing is reminiscent of the tobacco industry in its worst days."

While it is unclear what enforcement of these products would look like, under the proposed rule, the following provisions would apply to newly “deemed” tobacco products:

1. Minimum age and identification restrictions to prevent sales to underage youth;
2. Requirements to include health warnings; and
3. Prohibition of vending machine sales, unless in a facility that never admits youth.

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