The Food and Drug Administration has proposed extending its authority over tobacco product including cigars, pipes, nicotine gels, hookahs, and electronic cigarettes.

The federal government is getting involved in the rapidly growing electronic cigarette industry. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed extending its authority over tobacco product including cigars, pipes, nicotine gels, hookahs, and electronic cigarettes. Currently, the FDA regulates only cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco.

Under the proposed rules e-cigarette makers will need to register with the FDA, disclose ingredients, not provide free samples, and the products would be subject to the same age restrictions as other tobacco products. These are relatively modest regulations but the FDA could go much further in the future based on new research.

The issue of how to treat e-cigarettes is one of the most interesting questions in public health right now because there are so many unknowns.

First, there is the question of their safety. While it is probably safe to assume vaporized nicotine is not as bad for a person’s repository system as inhaling burning adulterated tobacco it may not be completely harmless. Nicotine and the solvents used could cause some issues.

More importantly, we don’t have a good idea how they will impact cigarette and nicotine consumption long term. If, on net, they help more people quit cigarettes that would be a big positive for public health, given how deadly cigarettes are. On the other hand, they could theoretically make the issue worse by serving as a “gateway” for new people to start using cigarettes, or make it less likely a person would quite smoking cigarettes by making life as a smoker more convenient. For example, someone supplementing their cigarette consumption by using e-cigarettes only at their job, when in the past the inconvenience of not being able to smoke would have made them quit cigarettes completely.

Depending on how these questions are answered we could see the FDA maintaining a light touch or pushing for some significant restrictions in the coming years.

Photo by Li Tsin Soon under Creative Commons license