Staff Columnist

Take cautious approach to regulating e-cigarettes

Long-term impacts on adult health and youth tobacco use are unclear

A customer puffs on an e-cigarette at the Henley Vaporium in New York City December 18, 2013.  REUTERS/Mike Segar
A customer puffs on an e-cigarette at the Henley Vaporium in New York City December 18, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Federal regulators seem to be in a hurry to clamp down on fruity flavors in Americans’ e-cigarettes.

Authorities sent letters last week to 21 e-cigarette manufacturers and importers, demanding proof the companies are in compliance with government rules meant to keep nicotine out of children’s reach. That came a few weeks after the Food and Drug Administration launched an “aggressive enforcement strategy” to crack down on “kid-friendly marketing” among e-cigarette sellers.

U.S. regulators have a long history of imposing overbearing restrictions in the name of protecting the youth. It’s a politically expedient endeavor, since few would take issue with an effort to prevent substance abuse among kids. However, the campaign to defend teen health could also end up restricting access among adult users, which might ultimately be counterproductive in reducing harm caused by tobacco.

E-cigarettes have been the subject of many health science projects since they became widely available in the United States over the past decade. They appear to be much safer than combustible tobacco products like cigarettes and cigars, and there’s some emerging evidence they are a viable alternative for people trying to quit smoking. On both counts, the long-term results are unclear. E-cigarettes still are a relatively new phenomenon.

A key concern for FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb — who was nominated by President Donald Trump last year and confirmed by the Senate with support from only a handful of Democrats — is the large variety of e-cigarette liquid flavors on the market. He has ordered the agency to explore new rules focused specifically on e-cigarette flavors that may appeal to kids.

Of course, there are plenty of adults who have a taste for things like “blue raz” or “gummi bear,” a couple real e-cigarette flavor names. Next time you’re at the bar or liquor store, note the number of legal-age drinkers imbibing with sugary ciders or fruity vodkas.

Among University of Iowa students, almost all of whom are 18 or older, 25 percent reported using e-cigarettes in the preceding 30 days, according to 2018 data from the National College Health Assessment. That’s up significantly from just 6 percent in 2016, the first year e-cigarettes were tracked. UI student use of all other tobacco products is decreasing.

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UI public health researchers analyzed national data about e-cigarette use, finding 15 percent of American adults in 2016 said they had tried e-cigarettes. They also found evidence e-cigarette use is increasing among former smokers, suggesting some smokers may be giving up traditional products in favor of vaping.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has a habit of including himself in contentious regulatory issues, usually taking a position in favor of more government restrictions. In the case of e-cigarettes, however, Miller has been a refreshing voice for restraint.

Miller wrote earlier this year, “We have enough information to be concerned, but not to make policy decisions.” In a world where government officials jump to new restrictions at the first sign of a perceived problem, Miller’s statement sadly is remarkable for its sensibility.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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