The other night, I was half listening to the Golden Globes when I glanced up to see actress Julie Louis Dreyfus -- comedienne of Elaine, Christine and more lately, Veep fame -- come into focus: big sunglasses, expertly coiffed hair and the blue glow of an e-cigarette between her lips.
The epitome -- if albeit a spoof -- of movie-star cool. Even in an era when smoking has never been a greater turn off, the cigarette -- albeit the plastic one with tiny batteries and a warm mist of propylene glycol and carcinogenic nitrosamines, along with highly addictive nicotine -- still resonates in Hollywood.
Spoof or not, e-cigarettes are no laughing matter. Neither are their largely unknown health consequences. And at the moment, these devices are uniquely poised to be regulated by the government or to continue to deliver nicotine with impunity and without oversight -- and companies that make them are counting on the latter. Last summer, Big Tobacco began rolling out its own e-cigarettes, complete with heavy hitting marketing campaigns and the star power of celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Stephen Dorff. All are betting that e-cigarettes -- already a $2 billion a year industry -- are becoming a disruptive innovation to trump the landscape of the traditional cigarette market.
Although traditional cigarette smoking rates have plummeted over the last decade among adolescents, the number of youth who are trying e-cigarettes is high -- and growing. In 2013, the CDC found that between 2011 to 2012 e-cigarette use among high schoolers more than doubled, from 4.7 percent to 10 percent. Not only is it legal for minors to buy them in many states, including my state of Virginia (which earned four F's from the American Lung Association for its efforts in tobacco control), their ubiquity and assortment of fruit flavors and brightly colored packaging are meant to appeal directly to young people. These products are like training wheels for nicotine addiction, doled out with carelessness and impunity.
In many ways e-cigarettes have begun much in the same way traditional smoked tobacco began -- unregulated, and without strong science to define the full impact on health outcomes. What seems abundantly clear to me is that the newfangled nicotine delivery system is toxicity in a clever disguise, masked as a somehow cleaner, safer alternative form of what it actually is -- the same old garbage.
There are roughly 250 different e-cigarette products on the market today and like me, many leading health authorities are worried about the potential health consequences of electronic cigarettes, as well as claims that they can be used to help smokers quit. While there is certainly more to learn, it is clear there is a great deal to be concerned about -- especially in the absence of any regulatory controls.
As a former smoker, I am grateful for the evidence based strategies that help individuals quit but the evidence is not there for e-cigarettes. Nothing short of full and direct regulation of these nicotine delivery devices will satisfy health professionals like me -- and shielding our youth from these perils -- even if they are not defined, as yet -- has never been more critical.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and lesscancer.org, in recognition of both WorldCancer Day and National Cancer Prevention Day (both Feb. 4), and in conjunction with lesscancer.org's panel on cancer in Washington that day. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about lesscancer.org, click here.