RICHMOND — Former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona, who highlighted the dangers of secondhand smoke and supported a ban on all tobacco products, is joining the board of directors for NJOY Inc., the nation's leading electronic cigarette company — a move that could bring increased legitimacy to e-cigarettes as a viable alternative to traditional cigarettes.
The country's senior public health official under President George W. Bush from 2002 to 2006 will advise the Arizona-based company on public health and regulatory issues. He'll also spearhead its research of the battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution and create vapor that users inhale. The private company's flagship NJOY KING product is the top-selling e-cigarette.
The 63-year-old Carmona serves as president of the health and wellness nonprofit Canyon Ranch Institute in Tucson and is a public health professor at the University of Arizona.
In 2006, he published a comprehensive report that concluded that breathing any amount of someone else's tobacco smoke harms nonsmokers and was instrumental in smoking bans around the country. And in testimony to a Congressional committee in 2003, Carmona was critical about the possibility of safer tobacco alternatives to smoking.
"Definitely there's an argument that can be made for harm reduction, but clearly more research needs to be done," Carmona said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I'm probably going to be (the company's) biggest critic. ... I still look at my job as being a doctor of the people and I'm going to look at the science. ... If we can find a viable alternative that gave us harm reduction as people are withdrawing from nicotine, I'm happy to engage in that science and see if we can do that."
There are two approaches to regulating tobacco use: one that says there's no safe way to use tobacco and pushes for people to quit above all else. The other supports lower-risk alternatives like smokeless tobacco and other nicotine delivery systems like gum or even electronic cigarettes as methods to improve overall health.
Devotees insist e-cigarettes address both the addictive and behavioral aspects of smoking. Smokers get their nicotine without the more than 4,000 chemicals found in regular cigarettes. And they get to hold a cigarette, while puffing and exhaling something that looks like smoke. More than 45 million Americans smoke cigarettes, and about half of smokers try to quit each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"When he comes on board, it's very hard for anti-tobacco people who see themselves as health campaigners to simply oppose e-cigarettes. They have to deal with the fact that one of the leaders of their community not only is supporting e-cigarettes but is willing to be on the board of directors of the biggest e-cigarette company," said David Sweanor, a Canadian law professor and tobacco expert who consults with companies and others on industry issues.
In an interview with the AP, NJOY's CEO Craig Weiss said the addition to Carmona to its board is a "very powerful step forward" in its mission to "obsolete cigarettes."
The company did not disclose how much Carmona was being compensated for his new role.
The market for e-cigarettes has grown from the thousands of users in 2006 to several million worldwide. Analysts estimate sales could double this year to $1 billion, and consumption of e-cigs could surpass consumption of traditional cigarettes in the next decade. Some companies, including NJOY, have even started running TV commercials.
Some of the nation's largest tobacco companies have moved to grab some of the growing revenue in the e-cigarette market. Reynolds American Inc., the second-biggest U.S. cigarette maker, has begun limited distribution of its first electronic cigarette under the Vuse brand. Lorillard Inc., the nation's third-biggest tobacco company, acquired e-cigarette maker Blu Ecigs last April. Some e-cigarettes are made to look like a cigarette with a tiny light on the tip that glows like the real thing.
E-cigarettes could be more heavily regulated in the near future. A recent CDC study found that one in five current smokers reported having used an e-cigarette, evidence the agency says that more oversight is needed. And the Food and Drug Administration is expected to assert regulatory authority over e-cigarettes later this year to treat them the same as traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products.
"We still have one out of five people in America smoking ... there's a lot more work to do," Carmona said. "To dismiss (e-cigarettes) and not even consider it ... would be a disservice to the public who are looking for alternatives."