Op-Ed: It’s Time to Regulate E-Cigarettes
The New York Times
By David A. Kessler and Matthew L. Myers
WHEN the federal government announced last week that youth e-cigarette use tripled in just one year, surpassing the use of traditional cigarettes, the reaction was appropriately strong. “A wake-up call,” said one commentator, echoing others.
We agree. But a word that shouldn’t be used to describe it is “surprising.”
It’s not. E-cigarettes have so far escaped federal regulation and are being promoted using the same playbook cigarette companies have used to addict generations of teenagers. These marketing tactics include celebrity endorsements, slick TV and magazine ads that portray e-cigarette use as glamorous or masculine, sponsorships of race cars and music festivals and the use of sweet flavors like gummy bear and cotton candy.
The Food and Drug Administration has been empowered to regulate all tobacco products since 2009. Six years later, there is still no rule on the books governing e-cigarettes. Although a proposed regulation is wending its way through the bureaucracy, it is unclear when it will be finalized, or in what form.
The proposal would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to those under 18 (in some states, anyone can still buy the product). But it doesn’t address the aggressive marketing of this product to teenagers or the use of flavorings to win them over.
Leaving these issues unaddressed is a big mistake. The cigarette industry has long understood that virtually all new tobacco users in the United States are children and that if it doesn’t hook them as kids, it probably never will. We can’t let the e-cigarette industry do the same.
Many of us who are veterans of the long, hard fight against the powerful tobacco industry are deeply alarmed by the rapid rise in youth use of e-cigarettes, and our nation’s health regulators should be as well. From the “Mad Men” era on, we as a nation fought to deglamorize cigarette smoking. It worked. In the last 15 years, the smoking rate for high school students fell by 67 percent to a record low 9.2 percent.
But the egregious and aggressive marketing of e-cigarettes to teenagers threatens to undermine these gains and make smoking cool again. It’s no wonder that e-cigarette use among high school students jumped to 13.4 percent in 2014 from 4.5 percent in 2013.
It’s still an open question whether e-cigarettes are a pathway to other tobacco products or may help adult smokers protect their health by giving up cigarettes. But we should be able to agree on one thing: Kids should not use e-cigarettes or any tobacco product.
E-cigarettes pose multiple risks. The tobacco industry has long recognized that its products are, in essence, drug delivery systems for nicotine, a highly addictive chemical compound, and that its future revenues depend on how many young people it can ensnare.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed out, young people are particularly susceptible to nicotine addiction. Evidence suggests that nicotine exposure may also affect adolescent brain development. Our kids should not be guinea pigs in a rules-free experiment run by the e-cigarette industry.
In promoting their products, e-cigarette makers have been way ahead of regulators. It’s time for the F.D.A. and the Obama administration to catch up.
In 2011, the F.D.A. announced its intention to impose rules on e-cigarettes as a tobacco product. The F.D.A. finally issued proposed rules in April 2014. But those rules still have not been finalized, and the administration has not committed to a firm date to take action. During that time, e-cigarette proponents lobbied heavily — and successfully — against restrictions on marketing or use of flavors.
In addition to prohibiting retailers from selling e-cigarettes to anyone under 18, the F.D.A. proposal would require them to verify age for all sales and restrict vending machines to adult-only facilities. Warning labels would be mandated and manufacturers would be required to disclose what is in these products.
These steps are important, but the proposal needs to go further. It should prohibit self-service store displays that make e-cigarettes more accessible to children and restrict the type of marketing that has made e-cigarettes so appealing to young people. Online sales of e-cigarettes should be banned.
The 2009 law prohibited the sale of candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes, and for good reason: Those cigarettes were a blatant appeal to teenagers. But e-cigarettes now come in more than 7,000 flavors. An extension of the flavored cigarette prohibition to e-cigarettes is more than justified. Adult e-cigarette users don’t need flavors like cotton candy.
We cannot afford to waste more time while the tobacco industry addicts another generation of kids.