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Senators Sound Off on Electronic Cigarettes

Lawmakers spar over FDA Regulations


Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) shows off a kid-friendly electronic cigarette flavoring at a May 15 Senate HELP Committee hearing.
Courtesy of Dina Fine Maron.

Decades ago regulators banned cigarette advertisements that targeted young people in an effort to prevent them from growing up to smoke tobacco products. Today, with the science still unsettled around the health effects of smoke-free electronic cigarettes, controversy surrounds the idea of television advertisements for the nicotine-laden products that often come in kid-friendly flavorings. That swirling fog of unknowns was on full display at a Senate Committee hearing on May 15, where lawmakers pressed for answers about the potential benefits and pitfalls of e-cigarette regulations.
 
On the question of health effects, Mitch Zeller, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s director of the Center for Tobacco Products, said that his agency is funding “dozens” of studies assessing the potential dangers of the devices. The FDA is analyzing the emissions in e-cig vapor, the devices’ recipe and by-products, and the actual behavior of e-cig users, he said. But to date, the only conclusion he feels comfortable making about the popular devices is, “They have the potential to do good. They have the potential to do harm,” he said.
 
On the good side, advocates of e-cigs believe the devices can help smokers break their dangerous habit. For that reason, at the hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on May 15, Sen. Richard Burr (R–N.C.) said that he worries that regulating e-cigarettes could stifle innovation that may help smokers move away from harmful tobacco products.
 
With the “harm” side in mind, Zeller said his priority is ensuring that FDA has the jurisdiction to regulate e-cigarettes as needed. His testimony was the first from the FDA since the agency proposed to regulate e-cigarettes late last month (see related coverage). The proposed rule, which is subject to public comment until July 9, has drawn fire from some lawmakers and public health experts who maintain that it does not go far enough to protect children from the devices. The rule, if enacted, would ban minors from using the devices but stop short of barring e-cigarette advertisements or certain flavors that might appeal to youth. (FDA officials have said that it is possible they may issue additional rules on those issues in the future).
 
Meanwhile several cities, including Chicago and New York, have taken action to bar e-cig use in indoor spaces. States including New York and Maryland are also considering enacting statewide bans on public indoor use.
 
Sen. Tom Harkin (D–Iowa), chair of the HELP Committee, said that the proposed regulations do not go far enough. "Anyone that claims that these products are not explicitly targeting kids is clearly blowing smoke," he said, pointing to several flavored e-cigarette products he brought to the hearing, including cotton candy, gummy bear and rocket pop. "We can’t keep kicking the can down the road," Harkin said. "For kids, I’m pretty clear about what’s happening here and how [e-cigarette makers] are marketing [their products].”
 
Protecting children from e-cigarettes is important for reasons other than ensuring they are not a ”gateway” to conventional tobacco products, added Tim McAfee, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Office of Smoking and Health, in his testimony. Nicotine is addictive, he said, and that is reason enough to help kids stay away from the devices.

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