This week, New Times reported on the electronic cigarette business, which is currently booming but faces a crossroads this April, when the Food and Drug Administration is set to release proposals on how it will regulate the industry. A Wells Fargo analyst who studies the tobacco industry told us that sales of e-cigarettes could surpass sales of traditional cigarettes in the next few years. The coming FDA rules could largely influence how the market is divided among online retailers, small brick-and-mortar shops, and/or Big Tobacco.
So far, there are few studies on the effects of inhaling e-cigarette vapor. The FDA is moving cautiously in case it proves dangerous, and some cities and states have moved to ban the sales of e-cigs entirely. But some doctors and health policy experts have said that e-cigarettes show tremendous promise as a "harm reduction" measure -- meaning that while while it's best to smoke nothing, e-cigs could probably help divert people from conventional ciggies, which definitely cause cancer, emphysema, and death.
We focused on a store called Vapor Shark, which opened a lounge in Miami last year and expanded to Broward County (Hallandale Beach) in January. But one person who didn't make it into that story is Elaine Keller, president of Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives (CASAA), which she says has 3,000 members. A consumer with no financial stake in the e-cigarette market, she met friends through the website ecigaretteforum.com, and they formed a nonprofit "when we got the message that the FDA was trying to ban the very product that helped us quit smoking."
Keller, 67, who spent her career in computer-based education and as a writer for science research organization Battelle, said, "I smoked for 45 years, and believe me, it wasn't for lack of trying that I didn't quit earlier. I had become dependent on the beneficial effects of nicotine. I get very ill when I try to go without it. I become terribly depressed and confused, couldn't remember things and so forth.
"I found electronic cigarettes on the internet before they were very well-known, around 2007. Actually, the first thing I ordered was an electric cigar. It tasted just like a cigar. A year later, I got a call from the company. They sent me a starter kit for their new product. I didn't quit right away -- I was using it occasionally. But I switched March 27, 2009, and I've been free of smoke ever since."
Keller and her group mobilized people to attend an FDA hearing in Maryland in December, and CASAA's calls to action prompted 5,300 pro-e-cig comments on the FDA's website.
Like many smokers who have converted to electronic cigarettes, Keller has trouble fathoming why the FDA would want to impede people from switching from tobacco. She cited a study that found carcinogens in e-cigarettes and said, "The guy who constructed this was very good at propaganda. He said they had a detectable level of carcinogens -- what he left out was the quantity. Tobacco-specific nitrosamines would appear in any product made from nicotine. They found eight nanograms in a milliliter of e-liquid. How many in the FDA-approved nicotine patch? Eight nanograms. How many in a pack of Marlboros? 126,000 nanograms."
Keller suspects the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society "get funding from pharmaceutical companies that make stop-smoking products. Otherwise, their opposition is illogical."
Keller says her group is "very much in favor of reasonable regulations." For instance, they would support measures like childproof packaging (so long as it was not too hard to open, because a lot of ex-smokers are elderly).
Because of a quirk in the FDA regulatory process, Keller fears that the FDA could classify any product that was not on the market by February 2007 as a "new product," which would make it subject to a complex approval process. If newer, more sophisticated devices could not get to market, e-cig smokers -- or "vapers," as they call themselves -- would then be stuck smoking more primitive e-cigarettes, many of which lack the feel of real cigarettes, thus potentially driving people back to conventional cigs.
Keller also fears that in its haste to protect children, the agency could ban flavored vapors. "Most of us started with [tobacco-flavored electronic cigarettes] but, when we tried a new flavor, switched completely away."
FDA spokesperson Jenny Haliski declined to offer any specifics rules the agency is considering and instead gave the following statement: "Electronic cigarettes are battery-operated products that turn nicotine, which is highly addictive, and/or other chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. The agency regulates electronic cigarettes that are marketed for therapeutic purposes as drugs or devices. FDA intends to propose a regulation that would extend the agency's 'tobacco product' authorities -- which currently only apply to cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco, and smokeless tobacco -- to other categories of tobacco products that meet the statutory definition of 'tobacco product.' Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products."