On Wednesday, CVS made history by becoming the first major U.S. pharmacy chain to agree to stop selling all tobacco products in its stores. And e-cigarette manufacturers are already seizing on the opportunity to pitch the increasingly popular smoking method as a healthier alternative to tobacco.
CVS, unlike fellow pharmacy chain Walgreens, doesn’t currently stock electronic smoking devices. But some companies are hoping to use CVS’ new anti-tobacco posture to change that. “We applaud CVS for their bold and thoughtful decision to no longer sell traditional tobacco products, like combustible cigarettes,” said Andries Verleur, CEO of e-cigarette manufacturer VMR Products, in a statement to CBS News. “Decades of research have confirmed the harmful and deadly effects of inhaling burning tobacco and we believe in the mission to create a tobacco-free generation. With this in mind, we are also pleased that CVS will continue to emphasize the importance of alternatives to tobacco and hope that they will ultimately recognize the impact of electronic cigarettes, which do not contain tobacco, in this category.”
The e-cigarette industry, barely existent just five years ago, is now booming. Bloomberg projects that U.S. sales alone are valued at $1.5 billion and that e-cigarette sales could surpass traditional tobacco by 2023.
What’s less clear is if the products are, in fact, as safe as manufacturers make them out to be. Although e-cigarettes don’t contain as many combustible materials as traditional tobacco, experts say the jury is still out on their overall effect on public health. “There are a few studies out there right now, but scientists like to have a gazillion,” said Dr. Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control at UC San Francisco, in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously found evidence that at least some e-cigarette vapor samples contain carcinogens. The agency is still conducting reviews and has promised regulatory action in the near future.
Other academic organizations have found that e-cigarette vapor contains heavy metals, formaldehyde, glycol, and glycerin. While the latter two are thought to generally be safe as food additives, there is little data on the effects of inhaling them over the long-term. Scientists generally agree that it will take at least several more years worth of data before they can arrive at more concrete conclusions about e-cigarettes’ health effects.
In the meantime, the main concern expressed by public health advocates is over e-cigarettes’ potential to become a new form of smoking embraced by youth rather than a cessation tool for current smokers. Several cities, including New York City and Chicago, have already banned smoking e-cigarettes indoors ahead of FDA action, citing worries that impressionable children may pick up the habit.
“Having worked with the FDA, having encouraged them to take steps to protect individuals and children, they are usually an agency that leads from behind,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) in a press statement announcing the Windy City’s indoor e-cigarette ban. “And when it comes to the city of Chicago, when it comes to the people of the city of Chicago, when it comes to the children of the city of Chicago, I do not believe we should wait.”