WASHINGTON -- A growing number of states are taking aim at electronic cigarettes in the absence of federal regulations, intensifying a public-health debate over the fast-growing alternative to traditional cigarettes, reported the Wall Street Journal.
Lawmakers in more than half a dozen states from Arizona to New York have introduced legislation this year that would prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. Bills in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Utah would extend smoking bans in public areas to include e-cigarettes, and politicians in other states have proposed special taxes and halting Internet sales.
The activity comes as more Americans turn to the battery-powered tubes, which turn nicotine-laced liquid into a vapor mist that is inhaled. Annual sales of e-cigarettes in the U.S. have grown to between $250 million and $500 million since arriving from China five years ago, according to industry estimates. That still represents a sliver of the approximately $100 billion U.S. tobacco market.
A survey by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) cited by the newspsper indicated 2.7% of U.S. adults had tried e-cigarettes by 2010, up from 0.6% a year earlier.
Anti-smoking groups seeking tight regulations on e-cigarettes say not enough is known about their health effects and that scientific studies are scant. They also say e-cigarettes are more likely to attract youth because they come in flavors like chocolate, cherry and pina colada.
In 2009, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) warned that e-cigarettes may pose health risks after its laboratory analysis of samples detected carcinogens and toxic chemicals. The agency said in April it planned to regulate e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, but it has yet to issue its proposal. It could be several more months or even years before federal rules are implemented, said the report.
"It's a very serious and important issue. We obviously need to learn more about potential health benefits and risks of novel products,'' Lawrence Deyton, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, told the Journal. He added the agency is moving "expeditiously" to propose e-cigarette regulations.
E-cigarette users--so-called "vapers"--and some health experts are urging regulators to tread lightly. They say e-cigarettes help nicotine addicts quit more harmful traditional cigarettes, which release most of the toxins that cause disease through combustion, and eliminate the problem of secondhand smoke.
"We finally found something that worked; we quit smoking, and they want to ban it,'' Elaine Keller, president of the nonprofit Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association, a consumer group that has received funding from e-cigarette companies but is mainly supported by e-cigarette users, told the paper.
"To put some sort of major obstacle in the way of its use would be really unfortunate,'' Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health, told the paper.
Siegel said inhaling propylene glycol, a respiratory irritant found in e-cigarettes, represents a major health concern. But he also noted the FDA's initial 2009 test and more than a dozen industry-commissioned lab studies indicate e-cigarettes have far fewer carcinogens or toxins and at far lower levels than traditional cigarettes.
Even e-cigarette companies support some regulation of an industry that has sprouted hundreds of startup brands, but still lacks standardized oversight, the report said. Although a growing number of brands such as NJOY and blu Cigs can be found at major retailers like 7-Eleven, Walgreens and Wal-Mart, many are sold exclusively over the Internet. Since they are not taxed like traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes can cost half as much, according to some estimates.
While they support age restrictions, the companies say their products should not be cordoned off like traditional cigarettes or taxed at similar rates. "We don't believe they are analogous in terms of their impact on society,'' Craig Weiss, president of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Sottera Inc., which owns the NJOY brand, told the Journal.
Lawmakers in Hawaii have moved to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. But they backtracked last month on taxing the products at the same rate as traditional cigarettes after receiving more than 1,000 written submissions, many from e-cigarette users opposing the measure.
In Vermont, state Rep. Bill Frank has introduced a bill that would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to those under 18 years of age and make Internet-based sales punishable by up to five years of imprisonment. "If you're going to get kids hooked on nicotine, they're going to be smoking,'' Mr. Frank, a Democrat, said.
Senators in Utah are weighing a House-approved bill that would extend bans on smoking in public areas to e-cigarettes. New Jersey already has such a law in place, as do some cities, including Boston and Seattle. Many anti-smoking groups say e-cigarettes, which often look like traditional cigarettes, spark confusion in nonsmoking areas, undermining bans.
"I would rather err on the side of caution," State Representative Susan Westrom (D-Ky.), who sponsored a similar bill in Kentucky, a major tobacco producer told the paper.