Some say the Food and Drug Administration’s proposal to regulate electronic cigarettes has been a long time coming and that it isn’t stringent enough to adequately protect the public while industry representatives say they’re in support of certain aspects but labeling them as a tobacco product is inherently flawed.
John Corbett said he knows the industry in and out. He’s the CEO of It Is Vapor, an e-liquid producer, owns 15 vapor stores including one in Redwood City and said he’s a former 33-year tobacco smoker turned avid e-cigarette user. He already adheres to the business practices and production regulations outlined in the FDA proposal, but thinks people are falsely reacting to the product.
“The reason I’m OK today is because no matter what they do I’ve already done what they’re requesting, but the part that bothers me … is it gives people an alternative to a very dangerous activity (smoking cigarettes) and because it looks similar it makes people react negatively to it,” Corbett said.
The FDA proposal is to classify e-cigarettes as a tobacco product, ban sales to minors and prohibit them from being advertised as a reduced risk alternative without scientific evidence supporting the claim. It would also require FDA approval for new products, the disclosure of ingredients and the display of warning labels.
Prior to the proposal, FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Yao said the $2 billion-a-year industry was ran like the wild wild West. Although the proposal may not be as restrictive as some would like, Yao added it’s a critical step to reining in the product under federal regulation.
“This is something we’ve been working on for quite a while now and it’s been a priority to get this out,” Yao said. “So for us, this is a great day to let the public know and review our proposal so we can move forward in establishing the foundation to regulate these tobacco products … so we can give consumers info to then determine whether or not they want to use those products.”
Oversight and classification
U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier has been following this issue for some time. In March, she sent a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, expressing her concerns about a lack of FDA oversight, limited health-related testing and the need for regulations to prevent children from being exposed to e-cigarettes. The proposal is a good first step, Speier said, but she would like to see significantly wider regulation, especially in terms of protecting children and former smokers from being swayed by deceptive advertising and unsubstantiated claims that these cigarettes are healthier than other tobacco products.
Speier fears the FDA’s proposal also doesn’t adequately address child safety concerns and stated she plans on introducing legislation in the coming weeks to address the regulatory gaps.
For Speier, there is also a question of quality control. While Corbett said the primary other ingredients in e-cigarettes are commonly used and FDA approved, Speier said some of the liquid comes from foreign countries with little oversight.
“It’s absolutely appropriate for the FDA to step in and it also needs to do an assessment on the toxicity of the substances because most of the fluid in e-cigarettes … [is] imported, much of it from China. There are real concerns about what’s really in it,” Speier said.
Without FDA regulations, there are currently no production standards, Yao said.
“By bringing them under our authority, but also funding scientific research, we can get the necessary scientific info to properly regulate these products,” Yao said. “We haven’t had any definitive answers that’s why we need the scientific foundation to determine whether these products are harmful or helpful.”
Business owners, e-liquid producers and industry representatives all say there are aspects to the proposed regulations that are reasonable and they already practice, but argue it’s categorically wrong to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products.
“While there is a need for appropriate and proportionate regulation of vaporizers and e-cigarettes, these products represent a new and unique category. … Trying to squeeze an innovative vapor product into a regulatory structure that was designed for traditional combustible and oral tobacco products is simply not appropriate,” a representative of lobbyist group Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association wrote in an email.
Way to quit
Joseph Pike, co-owner of the store The Vape Area in San Mateo, adheres to age restrictions and said smoking in restaurants or certain public places is just bad etiquette. But part of the reason he opened up his new business was so smokers could try a product that helped him quit, Pike said.
“People are talking about not having enough research about e-cigs, but I think that’s funny, because we have 30 to 40 years of research about cigarettes being dangerous,” Pike said. “They say it’s up for debate about how it could help you, but I see people come in every single day … people are quitting cigarettes completely because of [e-cigarettes] and feeling happy and better about it. Just because the research hasn’t come out yet, doesn’t mean it’s not genuinely affecting peoples lives right now.”
Corbett and Pike said many vapor shops started out as independent brick-and-mortar businesses and prohibiting online sales would encourage consumers to buy local.
The industry only pays sales tax yet the FDA wants to regulate them for tax incentives, Corbett said. But many people chose e-cigarettes as an alternative is for both cost and health incentives, Corbett said.
“When we’re helping people in the community save money, they’re taking it from big tobacco and going back and spending it in their own communities,” Corbett said.
Although he sees why certain aspects of the sale and production of e-cigarettes deserves regulations, he hopes people will take the time to consider what else is at risk, Corbett said.
“I just want people to be really introspective and understand the emotion that’s involved and how happy a family is when they get a family member to quit,” Corbett said. “They don’t want to present this as a smoking cessation device, but the fact is that they do help people quit.”
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