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FDA: E-Cigarettes Bad, but Not Banned

FDA Issues Warning as Tests Find Electronic Cigarettes 'Illegal'
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Since 2008, the FDA has been trying to prevent e-cigarettes from entering the country. To date, 50 shipments have been refused, but this has not stopped distribution and sale of e-cigarettes. Canada fully banned the devices in March 2009.

E-cigarette makers and distributors have argued that their devices are safer than real cigarettes, thereby mitigating the harm of smoking. Some have implied that their products help people quit smoking tobacco products.

The FDA rejects both claims. Because the devices can deliver a dose of synthetic nicotine, the agency sees them as unapproved drug-delivery devices with unknown safety. And whether they can safely help people quit smoking is also unknown, while they have a clear potential to entice new smokers with their fruit and candy flavors. 

How E-Cigarettes Work

The e-cigarette comes in many shapes and sizes. Many look more or less like long cigarettes; others look like cigars or pipes. They all work the same basic way:

  • The user inhales through a mouthpiece.
  • Air flow triggers a sensor that switches on a small, battery-powered heater.
  • The heater vaporizes liquid nicotine in a small cartridge (it also activates a light at the "lit" end of the e-cigarette). Users can opt for a cartridge without nicotine.
  • The heater also vaporizes propylene glycol (PEG) in the cartridge. PEG is the stuff of which theatrical smoke is made.
  • The user gets a puff of hot gas that feels a lot like tobacco smoke.
  • When the user exhales, there's a cloud of PEG vapor that looks like smoke. The vapor quickly dissipates.
  • E-cigarettes contain no tobacco products; even the nicotine is synthetic.

The devices retail for $100 to $200. Refill cartridge packs vary in price depending on nicotine content, and liquid for do-it-yourself refills are sold, too. Each cartridge is good for several uses.

Device makers say they make no health claims for their products. Craig Youngblood, president of the InLife e-cigarette company, says that since regular tobacco is very bad for you, something that assuages your nicotine habit without smoke must be less bad.

"In our product you have nicotine or no nicotine, PEG, and some flavoring. In cigarettes you have nicotine, PEG, and 4,000 chemicals and 43 carcinogens," Youngblood last April told WebMD. "I am a proponent of harm reduction. People have rights and choices and should be allowed to make them."

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