The “smokes” may be different, but the Food and Drug Administration’s ever-vigilant watch to keep us safe from ourselves in its quest to quantify and purge all health risks from society continues. Their latest target? Smokeless cigarettes, or so called “E-cigarettes.”
The devices in question utilize an atomizer to vaporize a nicotine and propylene glycol (a substance commonly found in fog machines) solution that the user inhales and exhales as a vapor. Since there’s no tobacco, combustion, smoke, or smell involved, savvy individuals have taken advantage of the devices, which can be bought online or in mall kiosks here in the States, to get around heavy taxes on tobacco products and stringent smoking bans in public places.
But that hasn’t stopped the FDA, which as of this writing has "refused [the importation of] 17 shipments of various brands of these 'electronic' cigarettes, cigars, and pipes, and their components," on the basis that the devices are drugs and as such need regulatory approval before being marketed in the US.
Even without the FDA’s newly-gained jurisdiction over tobacco products (though clearly e-cigs aren’t tobacco products), the Administration already had the authority to regulate drugs containing nicotine (such as patches, sprays, inhalers, or gum) that are designed to help users kick the habit.
All this recent buzz about e-cigarettes seems to have come from a front-page article in the June 1 New York Times, in which the director of the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic stated that “We basically don’t know anything about them. They’ve never been tested for safety or efficacy to help people stop smoking,” despite this Health New Zealand safety report on Ruyan e-cigarettes, the Chinese product on which U.S.-imported versions are based, and the fact that the FDA has approved of nicotine for use in various and sundry quitting aids (some of them inhalant-based). As for propylene glycol, the substance is already generally considered by the FDA to be safe for consumption. From the FDA’s report:
"Propylene glycol is metabolized by animals and can be used as a carbohydrate source. Propylene glycol can be ingested over long periods of time and in substantial quantities (up to 5 percent of the total food intake) without causing frank toxic effects."
If the FDA were to succeed in banning or restricting e-cigarettes, which are already illegal to sell in Australia and Hong Kong, the potential health risks to American smokers looking for a tar-free and less offensive cigarette alternative would be enormous.