Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Smoke Signals: Why Electronic Cigarettes-Unregulated and Increasingly Popular among Young People-Are Worrying Some U.S. Officials

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Smoke Signals: Why Electronic Cigarettes-Unregulated and Increasingly Popular among Young People-Are Worrying Some U.S. Officials

Article excerpt

Tiffany Harvey had never smoked cigarettes. Then last February, the 26-year-old student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology saw an electronic cigarette on Instagram. Out of curiosity, she bought one and tried it. Harvey's been an e-cigarette smoker ever since.

"I like to smoke something that's flavored," she says.

Harvey isn't alone. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the share of young people using e-cigarettes doubled in 2012 from the previous year. That worries U.S. health officials, who for decades have been making progress in helping people quit smoking--19 percent of adults smoke cigarettes today, versus 42 percent in 1965--or in preventing them from starting in the first place.

Though some doctors believe that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit, officials fear that e-cigs will create a new wave of nicotine addiction among young people: Studies show that teenagers who try a cigarette are twice as likely to become regular smokers compared with teenagers who've never tried one.

The CDC study found that 1.8 million middle- and high-school students said they had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.

"We think it's very worrisome," says Tim McAfee, director of the Office on Smoking and Health at the CDC.

Invented in China

Electronic cigarettes are battery-powered devices that vaporize liquid nicotine without burning cancer-causing tobacco, thus producing an odorless fog-like smoke. Although they're taking off now in the United States, e-cigarettes were invented in China 10 years ago by a pharmacist and heavy smoker named Hon Lik. He came up with the idea after his father died of lung cancer from smoking.

Because most e-cigarettes contain nicotine--the same addictive chemical found in tobacco cigarettes--they have stirred debate all over the world: Canada, Mexico, and Brazil have banned e-cigs altogether; Australia allows only brands that don't contain nicotine; the European Parliament, however, recently rejected a proposal to tightly regulate e-cigarettes in the E.U.'s 28 member countries.

In the U.S., where retail sales of e-cigs are expected to total $1.7 billion this year, electronic cigarettes remain unregulated. In 2009, after finding several toxic cancer-causing chemicals--including an ingredient used in antifreeze--in various types of e-cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tried to ban them, calling them unapproved drug-delivery gadgets. In 2010, a federal judge overruled the ban, saying that e-cigarettes can be regulated by the FDA just like traditional cigarettes but can't be banned.

In response, the FDA is developing federal regulations for e-cigs, and is expected to announce them soon. Meanwhile, several states have passed laws restricting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and their use in public spaces.

Part of the issue with e-cigarettes is the way they're being marketed: They come in flavors like chocolate, bubble gum, or vanilla, which are known to appeal to young people. By contrast, the FDA prohibits all flavoring, except menthol, in regular cigarettes.

And e-cigarette makers have spent heavily on TV commercials with celebrities and on sports sponsorships--the same methods once used by traditional tobacco companies during the days when even cartoon characters like the Flintstones endorsed smoking.

The blu eCigs brand, for example, hired actress Jenny McCarthy among other celebrities and spent $12.4 million on ads for the first quarter of 2013, up 1,150 percent from 2012, according to Kantar Media.

The FDA banned regular tobacco ads on TV and radio decades ago, and more recently prohibited tobacco brands from sponsoring sporting and entertainment events.

"It's beyond troubling that e-cigarettes are using the exact same marketing tactics we saw the tobacco industry use in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, which made it so effective for tobacco products to reach youth," says Matthew L. …

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