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Pro/Con: Should the FDA regulate e-cigarettes?

Yes: Millions of kids inhaling dangerous substances

In 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was “vape.” The FDA should take a hint from the OED and write its own definition of e-cigarettes — a definition that will treat them as a tobacco product.

Congress created the FDA in 1906 amidst concern over the quality and purity of America’s food and drug supply, which was awash in toxic dyes and preservatives, and shaped by the outrageous claims of the era’s “patent medicines.”

The agency’s creation reflected a belief that consumers could not, on their own, always make determinations about product safety, reliability and health.

In short, the FDA was made to regulate products just like e-cigarettes.

E-cigarettes have created a market that abounds in unproven health claims; a market in which more than

16 million children can legally buy e-cigs and administer unspecified amounts of nicotine to themselves; a market in which the accidental ingestion of liquid nicotine has caused a huge uptick in the number of cases reported to local poison control centers — including the death of a toddler in upstate New York two months ago.

And it is a market that is booming. Last year, analysts at Wells Fargo estimated the overall value of the e-cigarette market at $2.5 billion and predicted growth to $10 billion annually by 2017.

Market growth can be attributed in part to aggressive marketing, and in part to high adoption rates among high school students attracted to the variety of e-cig flavors, including cotton candy, gummy bear and root beer float.

The FDA is the only agency that can regulate — not ban — this nicotine-fuelled juggernaut. FDA should prohibit sales and marketing to kids, make sure that health claims made by e-cig companies are true, and require companies to add ingredient lists to e-cig juice.

And herein lies the potential virtue of the e-cigarette: It could be a powerful tool for saving millions of lives if smokers switched from puffing to vaping to, ideally, nothing. As a cessation tool, e-cigarettes could have the same relationship to cigarettes as methadone does to heroin.

The problem is that the safety and health claims of e-cigarettes have not been proven. Particularly in the online vaping community, anecdotes abound testifying to the e-cig’s utility in helping folks kick the habit. But in the words of Mitch Zeller, head of the FDA’s Tobacco Products Division, “FDA can’t make regulatory policy on the basis of anecdotal evidence.”

Nevertheless, e-cigarettes are frequently advertised as proven tools of public health. Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco found that 95 percent of e-cig websites made “explicit or implicit health-related claims,” and 64 percent made claims directly-related to smoking cessation.

A world in which a dangerous product is marketed and sold as a healthy one is exactly what the Food and Drug Administration exists to prevent.

E-cigarettes are not snake oil. But gummy bear, cotton candy and sour apple shouldn’t make them go down any easier.

Sarah Milov is an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia. Readers may write her 435 Nau Hall South Lawn, Charlottesville, VA 22904.

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