It's about time the FDA regulated e-cigarettes
On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it will finally be getting involved in the e-cigarette industry. While the FDA has had regulative authority over traditional cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, e-cigarettes have generally been unregulated. Given the recent growth of the new technology, it is about time that the FDA stepped up its efforts in understanding the health concerns associated with the industry.
Many of the proposed regulations mirror those that are currently in place for traditional tobacco cigarettes. For example, selling to minors would be banned, and anyone purchasing an e-cigarette would be required to be 18 years of age and have photo identification as proof. Selling the product through a vending machine would also be prohibited. A health warning label would also need to be added to all e-cigarettes, but as of right now, the proposed label would only warn that nicotine is an addictive substance.
The more substantial proposition from the FDA is the requirement that e-cigarette manufacturers have to register their products, ingredients and methods with the FDA. Additionally, any new products would need to go through the FDA before it could be marketed, and no health claims can be made without first providing scientific data to back it up. As of right now, e-cigarettes are marketed, either directly or indirectly, as a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. The problem with this is that there is not a lot of research that has looked into the health effects of e-cigarettes. While the effects of nicotine are relatively well known, it is unknown what other chemicals consumers are inhaling with e-cigarettes and their subsequent health impact. This also ties into whether e-cigarettes should be banned in certain public areas as traditional cigarettes are, and whether being around friends or family members that use e-cigarettes will have adverse health effects similar to secondhand cigarette smoke. Knowing the actual health risks associated with e-cigarettes is the first step to protecting consumers and creating effective policy.
As expected, the proposed regulations have already come under fire and likely will continue to be argued by lobbyists during the 75-day public comment period prior to finalizing the recommendations. One of the initial complaints has been that this regulation will hurt competition and limit innovation. To a certain extent, this is true. According to The New York Times, there are currently 200 players in the e-cigarette market. Some of the smaller ones likely will not be able afford some of the regulation and will likely cease to exist or merge with a larger company. However, these free-market oriented arguments ignore one of the limits of competition. The free market will not naturally alleviate public health concerns, especially when consumers lack information, because e-cigarette companies do not need to disclose ingredients and can make baseless claims that aren't verified by scientific studies.
The proposed regulations may need to go even further, particularly in terms of how e-cigarettes are marketed. Currently, e-cigarettes are allowed to have commercials on television and also are available in different flavors. Neither practice is allowed for traditional tobacco cigarettes. Because of the push for flavored versions of the product, many are concerned that e-cigarettes are being marketed to kids, and are rightfully concerned. The data seems to corroborate that its use is a growing trend among the youth demographic. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the percentage of high school students who reported ever using an e-cigarette went from 4.7 percent to 10 percent between 2011 and 2012. In a more recent CDC report, poison control centers logged 215 calls involving e-cigarettes just in February, with 51 percent of the calls involving children. Even if e-cigarettes aren't as bad, there is still concern that a nicotine addiction could get kids hooked on other tobacco products that may be more harmful. As such, if the FDA finds reasonable health concerns, the same marketing restrictions should be placed on e-cigarettes.
The job of the FDA is to protect public health, and these new regulations help it do just that. E-cigarettes may be new and exciting, but this should not exempt them from regulation. If e-cigarettes have adverse health risks, consumers have a right to know about them. The core issue isn't whether e-cigarettes are a good thing or a bad thing. Rather, it is to ensure that consumers have accurate information to make an informed decision and that policies are put in place to protect them.
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