The first statements about safety concerns of electronic cigarettes were issued by the FDA in a way that suggested a government agency bowing to pressure exerted by big tobacco. For the FDA to mention banning a product before testing had been conducted is not the way that government agency usually conducts its business.
The danger of using tobacco has been scientifically documented for more than forty years. That is when warnings first appeared on cigarette packs advising users of the danger posed by smoking cigarettes. The warning language used in the U.S. is some of the weakest required in the world and only last year did the FDA decide to begin regulating tobacco products. Regulations applied to a single industry have the effect of making it harder for competitors to gain a foothold in the market. For this reason alone tobacco companies claimed to welcome new oversight by the FDA.
After hinting about banning electronic cigarettes several times, the FDA established a ban on e-cigarettes and electronic smoking supplies imported from China. The reasons offered by the FDA for this ban seemed to vary but then coalesced into a “fear” that e-liquids used to refill electronic cigarettes would lure underage people into smoking and addict them to nicotine.
In a decision handed down by a Federal Judge on January 15, 2010, the FDA was ordered to lift the import ban that affected electronic cigarettes. The FDA was criticized for aggressive efforts focused on turning a recreational product into one designated as a device or drug that could then be regulated out of existence.
Referring to the new tobacco division created within the FDA to regulate tobacco companies, the court opined the same regulations could be applied to electronic cigarettes. Regulation of marketing claims and contents of products should be applied to both versions of smoking products according to the court ruling.
The FDA quickly released a statement opposing the court’s view and expressing concerns over health issues that might be posed by e-cigarettes. Critics have pointed out the tendency of the FDA to change focus from dangers of youthful smoking to general health concerns when it suits the agency. If the FDA appeals the court decision it will have full backing of tobacco manufacturers who would love nothing more than to see new competition banned.
One great outcome for tobacco companies would be allowing the FDA to set separate standards and restrictions for e-cigarettes. This would significantly increase the cost of buying e-cigs and refill supplies. Currently, tobacco products can’t compete in price with alternative electronic products.
The court decision defined a need to scrutinize the relationships that exist between tobacco companies, pharmaceutical concerns and the FDA. Taxes from the sales of tobacco products put billions of dollars in federal and state government coffers annually. Many of the attempts to create fear of electronic smoking alternatives seem to be more concerned with the financial bottom line than with the protection of public health the FDA is charged with. Had big tobacco been the industry that introduced and promoted electronic cigarettes it is doubtful a controversy would exist.
The unusual steps taken by the FDA have created their own controversy about the focus of this government agency. The FDA has never proposed banning tobacco products to protect the health of the public. Traditionally, the FDA issues statements and warnings and takes action only after conducting full scientific testing. In the case of the FDA vs electronic cigarette manufacturers, the FDA has ignored testing to develop standards and instead has focused on finding reasons to ban a product that is arguably safer than the product it may eventually replace.
Amidst the growing popularity of e-cigarettes and “vaping,” a high school student questions the potential dangers. Mixed messages and uneven products add to the confusion.
Shreya splits her time almost evenly between Mock Trial and Journalism. She is a varsity Defense Attorney and a member of the her high school’s newspaper as the Social Media and Sports Editor. She plans on going to Law School eventually pursuing public policy.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at http://ted.com/tedx
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