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With New E-Cigarette Rules, FDA Hopes To Tame A 'Wild, Wild West'


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

The Food and Drug Administration unveiled plans today to regulate e-cigarettes for the first time. The agency also wants to regulate other nicotine-containing products. NPR's Rob Stein has more on the FDA's proposals.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: E-cigarettes look a lot like regular cigarettes, but they're not. They're metal or plastic tubes that heat up a fluid containing nicotine. That produces a vapor that people inhale to get a jolt of the powerful stimulant. But Mitch Zeller, at the FDA, says there's big concerns about these devices.

MITCH ZELLER: We call the current marketplace for e-cigarettes the wild, wild West.

STEIN: The wild, wild West because e-cigarettes have been totally unregulated.

ZELLER: There is no one vouching for the safety of the product. There is no independent regulatory review of any claims that might be made for the products. It is buyer beware.

STEIN: But the FDA wants to change that, and more. The agency already regulates regular tobacco cigarettes. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced plans to start regulating all kinds of related products, including cigars, hookahs, pipe tobacco and liquid nicotine.

MARGARET HAMBURG: It's a huge change because we will have the authority to take critical actions to promote and protect the health of the public.

STEIN: Most of the attention is focused on e-cigarettes because they've suddenly gotten so popular. The FDA's rules would do a bunch of things, mostly aimed at preventing kids from using them: ban selling e-cigarettes to minors, ban giving away free e-cigarettes, prohibit selling e-cigarettes in most vending machines. The FDA would also make e-cigarettes carry warning labels that nicotine is addictive and, the FDA's Mitch Zeller says, for the first time, disclose everything that's used to make them.

ZELLER: It will compel the companies to tell us what's in the vapor, and at what level, so that we can do safety assessments. We can't even tell you what is in the vapor today, let alone what the risk profile of those various compounds are.

STEIN: The FDA is also banning any claims e-cigarettes are less dangerous than regular cigarettes without getting the agency's approval first, and requiring companies to submit their devices for scrutiny by FDA scientists. Now, you might wonder what the companies that make e-cigarettes think about all this. Some smaller companies worry the new rules will make it harder for them to compete. But others seem pretty happy, relieved the FDA didn't go further - like try to ban e-cigarettes altogether - and even hopeful the move will end up being an endorsement. Jeff Holman is president of Vapor Corp., an e-cigarette company based in Florida. He's hoping the FDA's move will prompt some cities and towns to change their minds about e-cigarettes.

JEFF HOLMAN: I'm hoping that the FDA's wisdom will be imparted upon local government, and they'll kind of reverse course a little bit and give people the opportunity to use their e-cigarettes in places where they can't use tobacco.

STEIN: Public health advocates are also glad the FDA is finally doing something about e-cigarettes. Many think e-cigarettes could help cut the number of people smoking regular cigarettes. But they've been worried about how safe they are, and how aggressively they're being marketed. Some say it's taken the FDA way too long to step in, and they want the FDA to do way more.

DAVID ABRAMS: There's much more that they need to do, and they need to act urgently.

STEIN: That's David Abrams from the Legacy Foundation, an anti-tobacco group.

ABRAMS: For example, we do think they should be acting quickly to ban candy flavorings in e-cigarettes because we know these candy flavors are very attractive to youth.

STEIN: Abrams and others also want the FDA to try to restrict the marketing of e-cigarettes online and advertising them on TV, especially in ways that appeal to young people. It'll take a while for the FDA's plans to go into effect - years, for some of this. But once it does, the FDA says the government will have the power to take even tougher steps to regulate e-cigarettes, cigars and other products, if it looks like that's the right thing to do. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.