Who’s that behind the glowing blue light? A smoker? Then what’s he doing in the office, in restaurants, in my living room? And what’s with the cigarette commercials popping up on American TV? Weren’t those banned in 1970? (Yes.) Cigarettes, sleek in modern electronic guise, are bidding for respectability again. U.S. retail sales of e-cigarettes tripled to $1.5 billion in 2013, Bloomberg Industries says, then slipped a bit in mid-2014. Employers and governments are struggling to adapt. Health advocates are pressing for curbs of Internet sales and flavors such as bubble gum that might attract young people. It’s a new spin on the old fight over tobacco, only now it’s about whether e-cigarettes deserve fewer restrictions than cigarettes. In Europe, the debate revolves around whether e-cigarettes should be regulated as medicine – an idea favored by big drug companies worried that e-cigarettes could cut into their sales of nicotine gum and other smoking cessation products.
The Food and Drug Administration, granted oversight of the $90 billion U.S. tobacco industry by a 2009 law, is now poised to regulate e-cigarettes. The FDA announced plans in April to limit sales to minors, ban free samples and require nicotine addiction warnings — but not to prohibit TV advertising or flavored products. The proposal was expected to set off fierce lobbying before it is adopted, a process that could take months, with manufacturers facing higher costs and lower sales. That may discourage potential investors if they perceive a threat to expanding profits. E-cigarettes are sold by big tobacco companies such as Altria and Reynolds American, as well as by specialty concerns like the Miami-based V2 Cigs. Lorillard sold its e-cigarette Blu, the top-selling brand in the U.S., to U.K.-based Imperial Tobacco when it prepared to merge with Reynolds in July.
A Chinese pharmacist and smoker named Hon Lik gets credit for developing the e-cigarette in 2003. It went on sale in the U.S. and Europe in 2006, according to the E-Cigarette Forum, a website for e-cigarette smokers. Global sales are estimated at $3.5 billion in 2013 (up from $1.5 billion the year before) and are projected to rise to $7 billion in 2014. E-cigarettes take many forms. They come in various colors and contain different levels of nicotine. Some look like regular cigarettes while others are sleek, metallic tubes. Some resemble flutes or bishops in the game of chess. They all work the same way: A battery heats flavored nicotine liquid. The puffer inhales nicotine and exhales vapor (thus the popular nickname for e-cigarette smokers: “vapers.”) There’s no burning tobacco and thus no smoke or tar.
E-cigarettes are either the deceptively dangerous cousin of regular cigarettes or the best option yet for addicts to quit smoking them. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other health groups say e-cigarettes may be a gateway for youth to start smoking cigarettes, especially as some ads feature celebrities who make vaping look cool. Executives cite an obvious difference — e-cigarettes don’t burn — to argue that their products are probably less harmful than cigarettes and don’t warrant restrictions as severe as those on cigarettes. Research is starting to roll in. Vaping may be as safe and effective as nicotine patches for smokers trying to quit, according to research published in September and based on the first physician-run trial to compare them. Still, both sides say more studies are needed on health questions including whether nicotine is harmful.
The Reference Shelf
- The FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products’ website gives its position on e-cigarettes.
- A review of the E-Cigarette Summit at the Royal Society in London in November.
- An article published in the Harm Reduction Journal in October makes a case for e-cigarettes as smoking-cessation devices.
- An article published in November discusses adoption of e-cigarettes in the Czech Republic, based on research published in Chest Journal.
- The Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association is a trade group that endorses adoption of the devices.