Are you tired of me prattling on about electronic cigarettes yet? I'm not! This rabbit hole just gets deeper and more fascinating and complicated by the minute.
Two Wisconsin papers run articles profiling a small-ish local business, Johnson Creek Enterprises, makers of the "smoke juice" which goes into e-cigarettes. In those pieces, e-cigs are touted as a safer alternative to regular cigarettes because they don't contain tobacco, tar, or many of the carcinogens found in analogue smokes. My curiosity is piqued, however, when it's noted that they still contain nicotine and are currently completely unregulated in the United States.
After writing about the issue a couple of times, pro-vaping (as use of e-cigs is referred to in these circles) commentators came out of the woodworks to lambast me for asking questions and having concerns about the product. Thus far I've been accused of everything from wanting these people to go back to regular smoking, not caring about personal liberty, spreading lies, supporting Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, and any number of other nasty things.
So I've taken the time to dig deeper, examine the issues more closely, because boy do I hate the idea of anyone thinking I'd ever side with the big drug or tobacco companies. It's like calling Marty McFly a chicken. I just can't let it go. We're gonna race.
Further research and talking with more of the people involved is revealing all sorts of interesting things that I'd like to share with you now in the hopes that the conversation might be continued, industry spin (on both sides) cut through, and a more equitable solution reached in the end.
The most complex and potentially important facet of this debate has to do with the claim made by most all electronic cigarette makers that their product is not supposed to be a smoking cessation device. That is, they say they're not telling customers that vaping can or will be a path to kicking the cigarette and/or nicotine habit.
This is the main argument made by e-cig manufacturers against the FDA's desire to regulate their product as a drug delivery device. Such regulation would likely require that their importation be stopped until such time as more comprehensive testing was done to discover their short and long term safety and health effects. Understandably, manufacturers want to avoid such a process that would likely result in significant loss of sales.
But though the official company line states that vaping is not a good way to quit smoking, there are plenty of vested, industry-supported mouthpieces saying just the opposite.
If you read some of the comments on my previous e-cigarette posts you'll notice quite a few people loudly trumpeting the role of e-cigarettes in either reducing or eliminating their smoking habits. They talk about all sorts of health benefits, too. Their claims may well be true, but what's suspect is that a number of those folks have direct ties to the electronic cigarette industry.
Take frequent commenter Elaine Keller: "This product provides the nicotine my brain requires for adequate functioning (without destroying my lungs.) I have been smoke-free since March 27, 2009. The wheezing has disappeared. So has the phlegm that I used to cough up every morning."
Hey, great! Happy to hear it. But Elaine also just happens to be on the Board of Directors of The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association (CASAA) a consumer group that was created and is currently "funded by your friendly, neighborhood U.S. Electronic Cigarette Suppliers" to do direct lobbying on their behalf.
Oddly enough, other frequent commenter Kristin Noll Marsh is also on that same Board of Directors, as well as that of Vapers International (a group that gathers information and funds in order to complete clinical research supporting nicotine vaporizers and electronic cigarettes), all while running a website that sells e-cigarette accessories.
Obviously people who really love the product have every right to join groups to support its use and put out information about it. What I have a problem with is the fact that CASAA is funded by the industry, and several of its members apparently make a habit of going forth to spread tales of e-cigarettes use in cutting back on or quitting smoking. They become de-facto industry lobbyists.
(It's worth pointing out that the World Health Organization has ruled out vaping as a valid smoking cessation therapy).
It's certainly not a new tactic, but that doesn't make it any less sketchy. And all of this makes it hard to put much stock into what certain commentators claim about the product. Which is why I continue to advocate for better research and a more clear-headed approach to the subject.
The other option, then--and the one most supported by the e-cig industry--is to have the FDA regulate e-cigs as a tobacco product, using the new powers given the agency last year in historic legislation allowing them far greater oversight of the manufacture and sale of cigarettes. It would mean the FDA could regulate ingredients, require child-safe packaging and appropriate warning labels, and severely limit what kind of advertising can be done. All this without that pesky and potentially lengthy testing and review period.
In his ruling in favor of the e-cigarette companies and ordering the FDA to stop its blocking of the importation of the products, the judge said, "This case appears to be yet another example of F.D.A.'s aggressive efforts to regulate recreational tobacco products as drugs or devices." He went on to suggest that the agency could instead regulate the content and marketing of e-cigs under the new tobacco policy.
But the FDA doesn't seem to think that will be the case, since the new law precludes them "from regulating drugs or devices as tobacco products."
Are electronic cigarettes a drug delivery device or a tobacco product? That appears to be the main key in determining how they would be regulated. Since they don't contain any tobacco, I don't see how it would make sense to regulate them in that way. But classifying them as drug delivery devices could lead to an outright ban which seems unwise, given the fact that 1) e-cigs do appear to be the lesser of two evils when compared to regular smoking, and 2) cutting them out of the market but leaving analogue cigarettes alone seems incredibly hypocritical to me.
Maybe it's time to create a separate set of regulation guidelines for recreational products that contain nicotine but not tobacco.
We should also be funding comprehensive, scientifically rigorous study of the effects of nicotine-both long and short-term-so that we can all make more informed decisions. There simply does not exist enough data to do so at the moment and the only thing we really know is that nicotine is extremely addictive and withdrawals from it exceptionally disruptive..
(This will all involve a serious reform effort at the FDA, which does not exactly have a sterling record when it comes to being impartial and/or exhaustive in its research)
I would also argue that it's time for the e-cigarette industry to cease it's end-run around current rules by hiring and/or encouraging lobbyists and consumers to trumpet health claims that they themselves are not allowed to make.
It brings them dangerously close to the bad behavior displayed by Big Tobacco over the years-and if they're anything like me, that's not an association they'll relish.
I've been talking with the folks at Johnson Creek Enterprises about their business and product (smoke juice; not the electronic cigarette itself) and will likely have more to say about them specifically in the near future.
I think it only fair to hear them out on the subject, and must admit that their company doesn't seem to be causing or contributing to any of the controversies I write about above.
In any case, stay tuned for more perspectives and, I can only hope, more insight into the whole issue.
And celebrate a smoke-free indoor Wisconsin!