As FDA Steps Aside, Will E-Cigarettes Conquer the Market?

By Dirk Hanson 04/26/11

E-cigarettes are growing in popularity, and yesterday the FDA formally gave up its attempts to keep them out of the country. Are they a life-saving new technology, or a giant step backwards in public health?

Where there's no smoke, there's no fire.
Photo via addiction-dirkh.blogspot

Prominent nicotine scientists having been butting heads with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the safety of e-cigarettes since 2007, but yesterday electronic cigarette boosters won a huge victory when the FDA threw in the towel and agreed to regulate electronic cigarettes as cigarettes, rather than including them in the more restrictive categories of drugs or drug delivery devices--categories would have allowed the FDA to ban e-cigarettes if it had chosen to do so. Makers of electronic cigarettes, primarily companies in Asian countries, hailed the decision as a triumph of the free market, and maintained that the devices are perfect for the management of nicotine cravings when smokers quit. Others argue that the devices are also perfect for circumventing no-smoking bans. If you're not familiar with them, electronic cigarettes are designed to look exactly like conventional cigarettes, but they use batteries to convert liquid nicotine into a fine, heated mist that is absorbed by the lungs. The concept is similar to that used in vaporizers designed for smoking pot. E-cigarettes produce no smoke, just a fine mist containing plenty of what makes cigarettes go. The tip even glows red--although bar owners have been known to accuse patrons of lighting up in no-smoking zones. Manufacturers have responded by offering alternative tip colors. Blue is said to be a favorite.

Last summer, even though the FDA insisted on referring to e-cigarettes as “untested drug delivery systems,” Dr. Neal Benowitz of the University of California in San Francisco--a prominent nicotine researcher for many years--called e-cigarettes “an advancement that the field has been waiting for.” And recently, Dr. Michael Siegel of the Boston University School of Public Health, wrote: “Few, if any, chemicals at levels detected in electronic cigarettes raise serious health concerns.” Furthermore, Dr. Siegel took a swipe at the opposition: “The FDA and major anti-smoking groups keep saying that we don’t know anything about what is in electronic cigarettes. The truth is, we know a lot more about what is in electronic cigarettes than regular cigarettes.” Almost 50 million Americans are smokers. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) almost half of those smokers try to quit each year.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]