Federal and state officials are pushing for a rapid end to the current laissez faire regulatory environment for electronic cigarettes, which is characterized by hundreds of companies vying for customers with diverse device and flavor options.
The Food and Drug Administration is preparing draft regulations, with a target release date sometime in October, for the battery-powered vapor machines marketed as a healthy alternative to carcinogen-packed conventional cigarettes.
If the FDA chooses to apply the Tobacco Control Act of 2009 to e-cigarettes, advertising would be tightly regulated and popular flavors may be banned. That law, enacted with the support of cigarette company Phillip Morris, banned flavored cigarettes and restricted advertising and health claims.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told reporters during a Wednesday conference call he believes the FDA already has authority under the Tobacco Control Act to regulate e-cigarettes. He said he would be meeting with FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and two unnamed Senate colleagues later in the day "to press [the FDA] to regulate tobacco products to the full extent of their power."
Brown alleged that e-cigarette makers are directly linked to the conventional cigarette industry and said flavored liquid is being used to recruit a new "crop of customers."
"Cigarette smoking, we know, kills close to a half million people in the United States every year," Brown said. "The tobacco industry, they know that between 400,000 and 500,000 customers die every single year and that means... they have to find 400,000 to 500,000 new smokers every single year [and] they set their sights on the latest nicotine market."
He added: "The longer they can be marketed to children, the more our hard-fought gains to prevent teens from being addicted to tobacco are lost. If more young people get hooked on e-cigarettes, the chances of their smoking – when they are older – regular cigarettes increase. ... If making cigarettes is addicting children and killing them, that's the most important factor here."
Brown joins other Democratic senators in urging regulation of e-cigarettes. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told U.S. News last week he would like the FDA to ban flavor options and the online sale of e-cigarettes. It's "completely disingenuous," Blumenthal claimed, for e-cigarette advocates to say fruity flavors are primarily used by adults.
Brown and Blumenthal both said they would support legislation if the FDA doesn't act first.
Advocates of e-cigarettes say they support age restrictions, but they are urging officials to hit the brakes before enacting regulations.
"Like Sen. Blumenthal, Sen. Brown is acting without adequate data," said Gregory Conley, legislative director of the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association. "Sen. Brown is encouraging a ban on flavored e-cigarettes without having asked for evidence showing that flavored e-cigarettes are actually being targeted or marketed to teens, or actually being used by teens. He certainly doesn't seem to have any regard for electronic cigarettes as ways to get smokers to stop inhaling burning smoke."
Conley added: "Mr. Brown sure knows from the negotiations back [in 2009] that eliminating flavored cigarettes from the market made no measurable impact on public health because no adolescents were actually using them."
The urging by Brown comes one day after 37 state attorneys general signed a letter asking the FDA to apply the Tobacco Control Act to e-cigarettes. The state officials, led by Democrat Martha Coakley of Massachusetts and Republican Mike DeWine of Ohio, alleged children are enticed by flavors. They also pointed to two small companies that have used animated monkeys in their marketing and another company that offers various "skins" to modify the appearance of their e-cigarettes.
"E-cigarettes contain fruit and candy flavors – such as cherry, chocolate, gummy bear, and bubble gum – that are appealing to youth," the state attorneys general wrote. "The FDA has banned such flavors from cigarettes and should take the same action regarding e-cigarettes."