Fifty years ago, Americans received a wake-up call when the Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health announced the dangers of smoking cigarettes (USA TODAY). The 1964 report and subsequent reports linked smoking with lung cancer and led to a storm of landmark legislation that initiated regulations on tobacco (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Over the next five years, Congress passed laws requiring health warnings on cigarette packages and banning cigarette advertising in broadcasting media.
Since the first report, health organizations have successfully been educating people to reduce or quit tobacco use. Smoking rates have since dropped by 59%, and anti-tobacco efforts have saved an estimated 8 million lives (USA TODAY). Progress in anti-smoking intervention, however, may be hindered by the rise of a new villain: the electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette.
According to the Los Angeles Times, e-cigarettes, which look like tobacco cigarettes, are battery-operated devices that emit nicotine vapor instead of smoke. Sales of e-cigarettes are expected to hit almost $2 billion this year, and vaping (using an e-cigarette) is rapidly increasing among young people because e-cigarettes are more accessible and supposedly healthier than tobacco cigarettes (LA Times).
Unlike tobacco, e-cigarettes do not generate smoke, so chemical emissions are lower in e-cigarettes than in tobacco cigarettes (WebMD). Although more studies need to be conducted, the amount of secondhand smoking exposure seems to be less in e-smoking than in tobacco cigarettes. Also, e-cigarettes may be more appealing than tobacco because consumers of e-cigarettes only need to buy one vaporizer and can try different flavors. The Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association has even claimed that e-smoking is a therapeutic treatment to help smokers quit tobacco (Daily Record).
Don’t be fooled, however, by the supposed advantages of e-cigarettes over tobacco: e-cigarettes are still detrimental to health. After all, the vapor released from e-cigarettes has the same nicotine, metals and other carcinogenic chemicals that are found in tobacco (LA Times). People have reported sickness because of the toxic secondhand vapor. In fact, e-cigarettes may be more harmful than tobacco because tobacco is strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while e-cigarettes are not (WebMD).
By far the most concerning aspect of e-cigarettes is that they are attractive to minors and young adults. A study from the CDC found that the rate of e-cigarette use in 2012 is almost double of that in 2011 (LA Times). One out of ten high school students in the United States have used e-cigarettes, and 7% of high school e-cigarette smokers have not tried tobacco yet (LA Times). Because they can introduce minors to tobacco and other substances, e-cigarettes can be considered gateway drugs.
Sadly, e-cigarette regulations are currently not strong enough. Although the FDA is trying to add more regulations, most e-cigarettes are not subject to laws for tobacco products because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco (FDA). Therefore, minors can legally buy e-cigarettes online as if they were books or video games. The lack of national and state regulation of e-cigarettes, particularly for minors, allows susceptible minors to try nicotine in e-cigarettes before moving on to tobacco later. Cigarette corporations only worsen the problem by promoting e-cigarettes as harmless products that can be used anywhere.
In response to the surge of e-cigarettes, some local and state governments have begun to enact protecting measures against e-cigarettes. Chicago recently banned e-cigarettes in indoor public places (Chicago Tribune), while New York City banned e-cigarettes in public areas last month (USA Today). California and other states banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors, and Los Angeles now classifies electronic smoking devices to be as harmful as tobacco products (LA Times).
Despite local and state efforts, the war for e-cigarette regulation cannot be won without support from the federal government. The federal government needs to follow suit and send the right message to its citizens by banning sales of e-cigarettes to minors and increasing funds for anti-smoking programs.
Written by ANDREW HONG