Only a few countries, such as Finland and New Zealand, plan to raise a generation of people free of addiction to nicotine. On Thursday, the United States took a step closer to such a healthy goal by imposing new federal regulations on e-cigarettes – with the special aim of denying their sale to people under 18.
These battery-powered devices, which often resemble a cigarette, deliver a hit of nicotine through inhaled water vapor. Their use has skyrocketed in recent years, and not always with the purpose of helping someone kick a tobacco habit. An estimated 1 in 5 high school students in the US was “vaping” by 2014 – even though traditional smoking of tobacco products by teens has been in decline.
To curb the rampant marketing of e-cigarettes to young people by a multibillion-dollar industry, the Food and Drug Administration needed to act. In addition to prohibiting sales to minors, the new FDA rules will also require producers of e-cigarettes to account for their products’ ingredients and disclose their manufacturing processes. Companies would also be barred from handing out free samples. Even tougher regulations may be required as more research is done on e-cigarettes.
The endgame of these regulations is not only to prevent harm but to help young people embrace the idea that they can live free of any addiction. In 2014, the US Surgeon General said the overarching goal of ending the use of tobacco-related products is to “maximize health.” And last year, the United Nations went even further. It linked a reduction of tobacco use to its new goals of creating sustainable prosperity for the world’s poor.
Many states in the US have already moved to regulate or tax e-cigarettes. (This week, California joined Hawaii in raising the age of tobacco purchase from 18 to 21.) With this FDA action, the US will go further toward raising a generation of Americans free of these addictive products. But first it must curb the commercial initiation of these new nicotine-delivery devices to youth.