Are ‘E-Cigs’ Exploiting Regulatory Loopholes To Get Kids Hooked On Nicotine?

If you were one of the estimated 108.4 million Americans who watched this year’s Super Bowl game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, you may have caught a glimpse of this advertisement for “Blu Cigs,” one of the most popular new “electronic cigarette” products out on the market:

The ad raised eyebrows in the public health and anti-smoking communities, as federal law has prohibited — or strictly limited — the marketing of tobacco-related products on television since the 1970s. President Obama even signed legislation during his first term to further limit the auditory and visual prerogatives of tobacco-related advertising. But electronic cigarettes — or “e-cigs,” as they are commonly referred to — aren’t technically the same kind of tobacco product, presenting a dilemma for those seeking to curb smoking rates among America’s youth.

E-cig advertisements tend to emphasize the fact that they do not contain the tar and other poisonous elements of cigarettes that lead to concerns over second-hand smoke — rather, they are simply mixtures of water vapor and pure nicotine (and, occasionally, some added flavors), making them more akin to nicotine gums and other smoking cessation products.

Public health advocates are a bit more skeptical. Organizations like the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been ramping up efforts to determine how, exactly, e-cigs could impact public health:

“E-cigarette use is growing rapidly,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Office on Smoking and Health at CDC. “There is still a lot we don’t know about these products, including whether they will decrease or increase use of traditional cigarettes.”

The CDC noted that although e-cigarettes appear to have far fewer of the toxins found in smoke compared to traditional cigarettes, the impact of e-cigarettes on long-term health must be studied.

“If large numbers of adult smokers become users of both traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes — rather than using e-cigarettes to quit cigarettes completely — the net public health effect could be quite negative,” added Frieden.

Some might find that e-cigs represent a relatively less harmful method of transitioning away from products that have continued to drive up public-health related care costs. Still, the transition to a more “high-tech” form of nicotine ingestion is oddly reminiscent of Big Tobacco efforts to deceive the American public into believing that life-threatening tobacco products are perfectly fine for moderate day-to-day use. And, unlike smoking cessation products such as nicotine gum, e-cigs allow users to indulge in the “oral fixation” of smoking — which tends to be one of the hardest obstacles to overcome for a smoking addict.

Ultimately, the lack of research and oversight into the issue of e-cigs and their effect on smoking habits prohibits an objective study into their efficacy and hazards. But while Americans — and teens in particular — are exposed to product placement promoting their worth, oversight groups would do well to press for more information on the products.