FDA and e-cigarettes: Nicotine addiction must not be the norm

The Food and Drug Administration will likely decide soon how to regulate e-cigarettes, the electronic devices that deliver a vapor of nicotine (along with some toxins). The agency must assume people do not want to be addicted to this powerful drug.

A man uses an e-cigarette, an electronic device that heats up a nicotine solution and delivers a vapor.

Since 2010, the Food and Drug Administration has been debating how to regulate the sale of e-cigarettes. The FDA should hurry up. These battery-powered devices, which heat a nicotine solution and create an inhalable vapor, are exploding in popularity – driven mostly by a tobacco industry in search of new addicts.

Addiction itself does lie at the heart of the FDA’s dilemma about regulating e-cigarettes. Should the agency assume that millions of Americans choose to be nicotine addicts, with the federal role simply to make the use of electronic cigarettes as safe as possible? Or should the FDA see this powerful addiction as inherently wrong, both for individuals and society, with the government helping people avoid or overcome it?

Several countries already ban the sale of e-cigarettes, a wise course for the FDA. They see the electronic devices as delivering a drug with no use, even if it does not have all the effects of regular smoking. Indeed, the tobacco industry does not claim e-cigarettes are a temporary tool for ending tobacco addiction. Most likely, e-cigarettes are being heavily promoted to attract people to take up smoking. Yearly sales of e-cigarettes are already approaching $1 billion.

Any benefit of e-cigarettes remains unproven while a few toxins have been found in the device’s vapors. At least three American cities ban their use indoors. And, according to one study, quitting e-cigarettes may be as difficult as for tobacco smoking.

In taking any action, the FDA must assume people do not want to become addicts to nicotine. Government already takes that approach inherently with increasing restrictions on the sale and use of tobacco products. The result has been a welcome decline in public smoking and smoking in general. People tempted to take up smoking now face difficult choices – in costs, inconvenience, and social stigma.

The opposite approach of tolerance toward e-cigarettes would be similar to the way states, once faced with criminal activities associated with illegal gambling, decided that people everywhere want to gamble and government might as well join in by offering lotteries. Now millions of mainly poor people can’t get enough of this daily gambling fix. And states are addicted to the revenues.

Simply curbing the sale of e-cigarettes to minors should not be the FDA’s final decision. The agency, and indeed much of government, can help persuade people that nicotine addiction is not “cool” and can be easily avoidable. The agency should do more than prevent harm. It can also assert that each individual has a right to be free of addiction.

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