FDA Issues Safety Alert for Electronic Cigarettes

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a safety alert for consumers of electronic cigarettes on July 22, 2009 following the results of a laboratory analysis of electronic cigarette samples.

Testing a small sample of cartridges from two leading brands of electronic cigarettes, the FDA’s Division of Pharmaceutical Analysis found diethylene glycol in one sample, and in other samples, carcinogens, including nitrosamines.

Untested and Unregulated

The electronic cigarette is a smoking alternative that is relatively new to the market here in the United States. It is a product that is not regulated by the FDA at this time, though that may change in the future.

Electronic cigarettes are largely regarded as a healthier alternative to traditionally manufactured cigarettes, which contain thousands of chemicals, many of which are poisonous and/or carcinogenic. However, electronic cigarettes have had little testing done to determine the dangers they might pose, so their safety as a smoking alternative is unclear. This alert from the FDA represents a start in that review process.

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FDA Cracking Down on E-Cigarette Imports

What is an Electronic Cigarette?

Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, look like the real thing but have just one thing in common with cigarettes made from tobacco: nicotine. An electronic cigarette consists of a white cylindrical tube with a brown filter and a red, glowing tip. Instead of tobacco however, e-cigarettes are filled with liquid nicotine. When smokers draw on the business end of the tube, a battery heats the nicotine, which creates a water-based nicotine vapor that is inhaled into the lungs. The excess cigarette-like “smoke” vapor is then emitted from the end of the e-cigarette, completing the cigarette smoking illusion.

Touted as a Healthy Smoking Alternative

Manufacturers of electronic cigarettes say that the product is a healthy smoking alternative, and even an effective quit smoking aid.

A typical manufactured cigarette contains upwards of 4000 chemical compounds, many of which are poisonous and/or cause cancer. While nicotine is theaddictive ingredient in cigarettes, it is the thousands of toxins contained in cigarette smoke that account for the majority of smoking-related diseases associated with tobacco use.

The jury is still out on all of the health hazards of nicotine, but we do know that nicotine is extremely poisonous. In fact, one drop of pure nicotine is enough to kill a person. Smokers receive much smaller doses than that in tobacco products, however. For instance, a standard cigarette contains approximately 10 milligrams of nicotine, but only one or two milligrams is inhaled directly by the smoker. It is unclear how much nicotine is inhaled through an electronic cigarette because this product is unregulated (and untested for the most part) as of now.

Electronic Cigarettes Under Scrutiny

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looks at the electronic cigarette as an unapproved new drug due to the lack of scientific evidence of the safety and effectiveness of this smoking substitute. As such, the FDA has been detaining and blocking imports of electronic cigarettes since at least last summer, though they are not pulling e-cigarettes from U.S. store shelves presently.

E-Cigarettes Gaining Awareness, Popularity

Electronic nicotine delivery systems, commonly referred to as e-cigarettes, were first introduced into the US marketplace in 2007. Until now, little has been known about the product’s awareness and use among US adults. According to a report recently published in Tobacco Control, e-cigarettes are gaining widespread awareness and popularity, despite efforts by anti-smoking agencies to regulate them.

In a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10,587 US adults, 18 years of age and older, completed a mail-in survey designed to gather information about awareness, ever use and past month use of electronic cigarettes.  Consumers also answered questions regarding demographic characteristics and tobacco use. Results of the year-long study were as follows:

  • Awareness of e-cigarettes doubled between 2009 and 2010, increasing from 16.4% to 32.2%, respectively.
  • Ever use more than quadrupled during the study period, increasing from 0.6% in 2009 to 2.7% in 2010.
  • Ever use was more common among women and people who had lower education levels.
  • Of those who were most likely to try e-cigarettes, current smokers and users of tobacco products topped the list.
  • Current smokers did not report that they planned to quit smoking after trying the e-cigarette, more often than smokers who had never tried them.

Little is known as to how this report will effect the e-cigarette industry, if at all. Based on study conclusions, it appears that the CDC is using the results of the study to justify continued monitoring and governmental regulation of this product. The FDA has been trying to regulate e-cigarettes for a number of years now, but to date, has been unsuccessful. One thing is certain: While it appears that the electronic cigarette is here to stay, who will win the war on whether or not they should, or ever will, be regulated by our government remains unclear.