There's a lot we don't know about e-cigarettes.
As a result, when it comes to regulating the latest addictive nicotine delivery device, many agencies and policymakers are still awaiting more facts to come in.
As a science-based organization, we applaud any and all instances where sound data informs public policy. So let's examine what we do know.
More than 466 brands of e-cigarettes currently exist. A recent study estimated that 6.8% of adults used e-cigarettes in 2013. That percentage may not sound too alarming until you consider the following: In 2012, 10% of high school students reported using an e-cigarette. Furthermore, the number of young people in grades 6 through 12 who admitted they had used e-cigarettes skyrocketedfrom 79,000 in 2011 to more than 263,000 in 2013.
These statistics are particularly alarming due to the fact that 88% of adult smokers started their habitual use as children. E-cigarettes use today might serve as a future gateway to conventional cigarettes for our kids. This would be a real tragedy given that youth smoking rates are finally on the decline.
One reason why kids are likely drawn to "vaping" is this: It's been estimated over 7,700 e-liquid flavors are currently available. One online retailer, whose inventory includes over 200 flavors, sells the following: Apple Pie a la Mode, Blueberry Cotton Candy, Gummy Candy, Toasted Marshmallow and Sweet Tarts.
This mind-boggling assortment of flavors, many which appeal to younger tastes, may help explain another troubling statistic: the skyrocketing number of calls to our nation's poison centers linked to e-cigarettes. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls about e-cigarette exposures increased from one call in September 2010 to 215 calls per month in February 2014. And 51% of those calls were related to incidents involving children under five.
It was recently estimated there are over 5,000 vape shops in the United States. If that number continues to climb, the number of underage users and the number of poison center calls will also likely increase.
Several states are taking action: Just this week, California declared electronic cigarettes a public health threat. In fact, only a handful of states currently allow sales of e-cigarettes to minors. That's good news for our children. But many remain at risk. Just last month the CDC estimated 16 million American kids can still legally purchase e-cigarettes.
Why would any state permit the sale of an intentionally addictive substance, such as nicotine, or a device to deliver it, to minors?
Research is just getting started. However, early results raise more troubling questions. A New England Journal of Medicine study raised concerns about the levels of cancer-linked formaldehyde inhaled when vaping devices are used a certain way. Other studies have focused on the high levels of inflammation-causing nanoparticles emitted by vaping devices. Nanoparticles have previously been linked to asthma, stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Another study suggested e-cigarettes might trigger antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
Based on the information we currently have, it's critical the Food and Drug Administration be given the authority to regulate e-cigarettes more broadly than current law allows. At this stage, the FDA can only regulate vaping devices marketed for therapeutic purposes. That needs to change, quickly.
Because good research takes time, it will likely be several years before we have a more complete understanding of the impacts and risks of e-cigarettes. However, based on the current data -- some of it compelling, some of it alarming -- it's clearly time for the country to strongly consider initiation of regulatory and legislative steps to protect our children and the health of future generations.
The health and safety of Americans young and old depends on it.