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While e-cigarettes gain popularity, FDA may start regulating products

Lindsay Fox
Containers of e-liquid used in e-cigarettes.

The Food and Drug Administration may soon get in on the fast growing e-cigarette industry. It’s considering labeling them as tobacco products, which would mean regulation over where they’re sold and how they’re made. That's good news for central New York smoking opponents, who say a lack of regulation is one of the big danger points of these electronic smoking devices.

So what is an e-cigarette anyway?

“A vaporized form of nicotine that is derived from tobacco, that is flavored and inhaled like a cigarette,” says Upstate Cancer Center Medical Director Leslie Kohman.

Kohman says e-cigarettes are not a panacea for smokers, in part because it’s not just nicotine and water vapor.
"It’s numerous other chemical compounds that we don’t even know," Kohman said. "And most of these are manufactured in places where we don’t even have control over them. China, etcetera.”

Without federal regulation, e-cigarette smokers are inhaling things like formaldehyde and acetone. Kohman is worried that they are targeted to kids, saying they are cheaper to buy than regular cigarettes and age restrictions don’t apply.

The flavors are also decidedly kid-centric says Chris Owens, a tobacco specialist at the Saint Joseph’s Smoking Cessation Center.

"Bubble gum flavored, chocolate flavored electronic cigarettes," Owens said. "Clearly that’s not targeted for an adult population. I don’t know any adults who would want to smoke a bubble gum flavored electronic cigarette. That’s got to be trying to draw youth in there."

Then once kids are hooked on nicotine, Owens says they are more likely to move onto traditional cigarettes.

And as far as e-cigarettes as a strategy for those trying to quit smoking, Owens is skeptical.

"I can’t think of anyone who has quit, who has approached me, who has said I’ve quit smoking completely by using the e-cigarette," Owens said. "More often than not, it’s I don’t smoke traditional tobacco products anymore, I’m only using the e-cigarette these days."

Owens says the safety of these electronic cigarettes is suspect, noting that they are not regulated, so smokers don’t know what chemicals are in the vapor they inhale. And Owens says that’s really not helpful when someone’s trying to wean themselves from the nicotine habit.

"We’re not sure of the nicotine quantity in those cartridges," Owens said. "So if a person buys a four milligram cartridge, some products might be slightly more than four milligrams, some might be slightly less, so if the person is trying to use this as a strategy to taper down how many grams of nicotine they're getting, it might not be an efficient method.”

Owens says the best way to quit smoking is combining pharmacological therapies with counseling to stop a habit that takes an average of seven attempts to break.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.