Usually when a herd of state attorneys general sets off on a crusade - particularly when they represent liberal states like New York and California - our skepticism meter ticks up. But a recent effort by 29 state attorneys general to persuade the Food and Drug Administration to rein in marketing practices for e-cigarettes strikes us as founded in reason.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that turn nicotine-laced liquids into a vapor that is inhaled by users. Part of what has the attorneys general on the warpath is the variety of flavors being used by e-cigarette manufacturers to market the nicotine in the devices - flavors such as Java Jolt, Cherry Crush, Pina Colada, Peach Tea and Butter Crunch. These flavors, say the attorneys general, target kids. E-cigarette manufacturers say not so, according to a Wall Street Journal article about the controversy. The manufacturers contend the hip-sounding flavors are meant to appeal to adults.
Readers can draw their own conclusions, but it is noteworthy, as the WSJ also reports, that the FDA has since 2009 banned marketing of any flavor other than menthol for traditional cigarettes.
The FDA proposed some restrictions on e-cigarettes in April, including a ban on the sale of the devices to people under the age of 18. (Kentucky enacted a law earlier this year forbidding the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under age 18). But the attorneys general want the FDA to go farther, banning TV advertising and Internet sales of the devices as well as the variety of candy and fruit flavors. The flavor marketing is being given credit for the rapid rise in the popularity of the devices, particularly among younger users.
At the core of the controversy, of course, is the question of just how dangerous are e-cigarettes. The answer is unknown, and won't be known for some time because they have been around for less than a decade. It is assumed that they are less risky than traditional cigarettes, which produce numerous toxins in addition to the addictive nicotine content smokers seek for enjoyment. But e-cigarettes remain a path to nicotine addiction and there are concerns in the health community that the repeated inhalation of vaporized and now artificially flavored nicotine concoctions could pose its own long-term health risks.
Also of concern is the fact that while use of traditional cigarettes by high school-aged youths has been rapidly declining, use of e-cigarettes by that same age group is on the rise.
A story in the Sun last month noted that Kentucky dropped from first to sixth place among states in the number of high school students who smoke. The state recorded a decline from 24.1 percent of students who said they smoked in 2011 to 17.9 percent in 2013. The national average is 15.7 percent, a dramatic decrease from the 47 percent of high schoolers who said they smoked when the Centers for Disease Control first began tracking the statistic in 1997.
But on the e-cigarette front, the trend is in the other direction. The percentage of high school students who said they have tried e-cigarettes climbed from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012.
It is difficult to argue given those inconsistent trends that the hip marketing of e-cigarette flavors and the growing number of stylish designs for the devices themselves are not having an impact on the youth market. And while we've not abandoned our libertarian leanings, we do think that nicotine addiction, like smoking generally, is something that should be discouraged.
To that end, we think the changes sought by the attorneys general make sense. E-cigarettes are drug delivery devices and they should be regulated as such. Restrictions on flavoring, TV marketing and Internet sales strike us as appropriate measures, and we agree with the attorneys general that the FDA should consider them.