They look cool. Chic, even. Glamorous celebrities puff on them. Rock stars personify rebellion with them. Electronic cigarettes are everywhere.
The battery-powered products, designed to look like regular cigarettes, are rapidly becoming the oral fixation of choice among adults and adolescents. Cigarette manufacturers market e-cigarettes as a harmless and even helpful alternative to traditional cigarette smoking.
But the jury is still out. Unlike conventional smokes that release carcinogens through combustion, the electronic tubes that simulate the effect of smoking do not burn tobacco.
They heat a solution that includes nicotine and additives into a vapor that users inhale. Smokers get a nicotine kick without the downside of chemicals linked to regular cigarettes.
Another bonus: Laws that regulate tobacco use in many states, including Ohio, don’t apply to using, or what some call “vaping,” e-cigs. Prohibitions against indoor and outdoor smoking don’t include inhaling and exhaling the nicotine vapor produced by e-cigarettes.
Industry titans promote their nicotine products as a way to wean cigarette smokers from their crippling nicotine addictions. Where’s the evidence?
Where’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on this? The government needs to determine how safe or unsafe alternative nicotine products are, and address their long-term effects.
The impetus for the FDA to act quickly was delivered by a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the troubling prevalence of kids experimenting with e-cigarettes.
Findings from a national survey on youth tobacco use show that the percentage of middle and high school students copping a nicotine buzz from e-cigs doubled from 2011 to 2012. Last year, 10 percent of high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes, up from 4.7 percent in 2011.
The user rate among middle-school students rose to 2.7 percent from 1.4 percent. That translates into 1.78 million middle school and high school e-cigarette smokers.
The survey also found that about three-quarters of the students who used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days also smoked conventional ones in the same period. “These dramatic increases suggest that developing strategies to prevent marketing, sales, and the use of e-cigarettes among youth is critical,” said Dr. Tim McAfee, head of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.
Even though 90 percent of smokers start when they’re teenagers, e-cigarette manufacturers insist they’re not marketing the devices to minors.
“There’s never been a tobacco executive, at least not in public, who’s ever admitted that they marketed to kids," said Vince Willmore, spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “But we know, from their internal documents that they have, and we know from the impact how it especially affects susceptible kids.
“We’ve seen an explosion of marketing for e-cigarettes that uses a lot of the same themes and images that have long been used to sell or market regular cigarettes to kids,” he said. “These e-cigarettes also come in an assortment of kid-friendly flavors such as Vivid Vanilla, Cherry Crush, chocolate.”
E-cigarette ads are also a throwback to the cigarette ads of old, Mr. Willmore told me. Reinventions of the Marlboro Man and the Virginia Slims woman depict e-cigarette use as masculine, sexy, hip.
“We’re very concerned that the current marketing for e-cigarettes is going to undermine decades of efforts aimed at deglamorizing smoking to kids,” he said.
Legislation crafted by tobacco lobbyists and introduced in the Ohio House would prohibit young people under 18 from buying e-cigarettes. “What the manufacturers of e-cigarettes are trying to do is to set up a whole separate definition for e-cigarettes, so that it looks like they’re taking some action to prevent sales to kids,” Mr. Willmore said.
“But a lot of those laws mean much weaker enforcements and penalties and, at the same time, exempting them [e-cigarettes] from all other [tobacco] laws,” he added.
Nicotine, inhaled from a heated solution or smoked from burning tobacco, is still a highly addictive drug. Why should the vehicle of delivery be exempted from regulation?
“The FDA first said back in December, 2010 , that they were going to regulate e-cigarettes, and nearly three years later they’ve yet to do so,” Mr. Willmore said. “Our hope is that this sharp rise in kids using e-cigarettes will prompt the FDA to move quickly.”
Do it for the children and teens who are risking a lifetime addiction to look cool.
Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: firstname.lastname@example.org