The Slatest

The FDA Is Finally Cracking Down on E-Cigarettes. It Also Plans to Find Out What They Actually Do.

The aerosol created by e-cigarettes contains addictive nicotine, but not the vast majority of toxic compounds found in cigarette smoke.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

E-cigarettes are a tobacco product. That might not sound like a revelatory statement, but for the Federal Food and Drug Agency, it is. Thursday, the agency released a long-anticipated ruling that will allow it to regulate all tobacco products—including e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars, and any other future form of tobacco-delivery we have yet to devise—just as it does cigarettes. The new rules mandate that e-cigarettes register with the agency and reveal their ingredients, methods of manufacturing, and other scientific data that will be key in determining how safe these products truly are.

Since e-cigarettes burst onto the scene about a decade ago, they have enjoyed huge growth with virtually no regulation. No longer: In three months, when the rule takes effect, companies will be legally prohibited from selling e-cigarettes to anyone younger than 18 (which is already the law in many states). Additionally, companies will not be allowed to offer free samples of e-cigarettes; not be able to market their products as “light” and “mild” without FDA approval; and ultimately be required to put warning labels on their e-cigarettes that clearly state the danger of nicotine.

“FDA is taking this action to reduce the death and disease from tobacco products,” states the ruling, which was first proposed in draft form in 2014. With these new regulations, “FDA will be able to obtain critical information regarding the health risks of newly deemed tobacco products, including information derived from ingredient listing submissions and reporting of harmful and potentially harmful constituents.” (You can read the rest of the novel-length report here.)

This is a major step in what has been a murky debate over a product that has attracted equal parts suspicion and intrigue. E-cigarettes have prompted national handwringing over the future of the youth—which, as Amanda Hess pointed out, is the general response to anything kids find cool and fun these days. Health agencies and some media reports allege that these products are being used to “lure” in a new generation of smokers with their claims of safety and seemingly endless variety of flavors. (The new rule doesn’t limit flavorings in e-cigarettes, in contrast to actual cigarettes with flavorings, which were outlawed in 2009.) 

The evidence, though, is still out. Surveys have found that the vast majority of e-cigarette smokers are already current or ex-smokers. On the other hand, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that teens may be more likely to start smoking actual cigarettes after first trying an e-cigarette. Vaping devices, a subset of the e-cigarette market, “are being shrewdly marketed to avoid the stigma associated with cigarettes of any kind,” wrote the New York Times in 2014. “The products, which are exploding in popularity, come in a rainbow of colors and candy-sweet flavors but, beneath the surface, they are often virtually identical to e-cigarettes, right down to their addictive nicotine and unregulated swirl of other chemicals.”

It’s true that most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is extracted from tobacco and forms the pleasurable and addiction-forming substance found in traditional cigarettes. But one of the great appeals of e-cigarettes is that they rely on heating a liquid into an aerosol rather than combusting tar, which is what creates that foul tobacco smoke full of toxic chemicals. And that is no small difference: A public health body in England found that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less dangerous than cigarettes. The FDA, too, acknowledges in its ruling that e-cigarettes are less risky than traditional cancer sticks.

But how much less risky? And, crucially, is inhaling nicotine from e-cigarettes just as addictive as inhaling it from cigarettes? Right now, we have little reliable government data on which to base a sound science-based policy. Fortunately, data is exactly what this new ruling promises to provide.