FDA can go further with its vaping rules

Since the turn of the century when electronic cigarettes went on the market, the devices have gone largely unregulated, promoted as a healthier alternative to cigarettes and a method for quitting smoking if not breaking the addiction to nicotine.

But with more studies beginning to roll in on health concerns and the increased incidence of e-cigarette use by youths, regulation has slowly trickled up from the local and state level and finally to the national level.

The Snohomish County Health Department last year barred the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and banned the use of the devices in public, including restaurants, bars and places of employment. The Legislature followed this year, extending the ban on sales to minors, though it limited the ban on vaping in public to parks, school yards and other areas where children are present. Throughout the U.S., other state and local governments had written their own rules for e-cigarettes.

Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, following a lengthy process, announced its own final rules that also bar the sale of the devices to those younger than 18 and requiring photo identification to prove legal age.

As well, the FDA will require manufacturers of e-cigarettes — and the liquid used to produce the vapor that is inhaled — to provide the agency with details on the ingredients used in the liquid and disclose their manufacturing methods and any scientific data. Those rules apply to large manufacturers on down to the small vape shops that mix up their own batches of liquid. Businesses also won’t be allowed to hand out free samples.

The American Vaping Association, in a New York Times story, called the FDA’s announcement more prohibition than regulation, but a prohibition against youths using e-cigarettes is what’s necessary.

“As cigarette use among those under 18 has fallen, the use of other nicotine products and especially e-cigarettes, has taken a drastic leap. Between 2011 and 2015, the percentage of high school students who smoked e-cigarettes has skyrocketed over 900 percent,” said Sylvia Mathews Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services, in announcing the FDA’s rules. “Millions of kids are being introduced to nicotine every year.”

A study by researchers published last month in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, backs up that concern and justifies the FDA’s action and more.

While all tobacco products are habitual, e-cigarettes are the most habitual product, the researchers reported.

The researchers attributed the higher likelihood of forming an e-cigarette habit to the diverse range of flavors, fewer restrictions on its use in public places and the perception that e-cigarettes have fewer harmful effects than other tobacco products. Not mentioned in the study, but certainly a factor in their popularity in many states including Washington, is the lack of any taxes on e-cigarettes.

In addition to its own research, the authors note a 2012 study that vaping may serve as a gateway to nicotine addiction and cigarette smoking, particularly among youths. Their own study confirmed it as a gateway to nicotine addiction but not necessarily to cigarette use.

The study also found that TV advertising has partly contributed to the jump in sales of vaping products and pointed to concerns that not enough is known about the health effects of vaping. Even though vaping delivers nicotine without the tar and other chemicals that cause cancer in smokers, recent research has shown that vaping can cause or worsen respiratory diseases, the report said.

The study’s conclusions about flavors are most concerning, however. The flavors used in vaping, and the trade names used to market them, seem especially and cynically aimed at youths. Among the flavors offered by one Los Angeles company, Alpha Vape, are Sweet Tooth, with cookie-like flavors of graham cracker and vanilla; The Dude, with mango, peach and pineapple; and the caramel apple flavors of Heist.

Though it left open the possibility, the FDA made no move to ban the flavoring of vaping liquid.

As it becomes more clear that e-cigarettes have moved beyond a mere smoking-cessation device to an alternative method of delivering nicotine, the reasons for treating them differently than other tobacco products are dissipating like a vapor cloud.

Since 2009, the FDA has banned cigarettes with fruit, candy or clove flavors, leaving menthol as the only flavor allowed. The agency should apply the same standard to e-cigarettes.

And as long as we’re treating e-cigarettes as just another form of tobacco, they ought to be taxed like it. Washington state should adopt the 95 percent tax the Legislature considered but failed to pass in 2015.

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