BOSTON – Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal recently announced plans to seek a ban on the sale of electronic cigarettes in the state. This ill-advised decision follows a federal Food and Drug Administration report that put a scare into electronic cigarette users across the country, telling them that these battery-powered devices — which deliver nicotine without burning tobacco like conventional cigarettes — are dangerous because they contain carcinogens.
The agency also reported that of 18 cartridges tested, one contained diethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze. The FDA threatened to remove electronic cigarettes from the market and to take enforcement action — including potential criminal sanctions — against product distributors.
Backed by the finding that e-cigarettes contain carcinogens and diethylene glycol, a number of anti-smoking groups and several other states in addition to Connecticut have jumped on the bandwagon, considering or enacting legislation to remove these “harmful” devices from the market.
However, the FDA failed to mention in its press conference that the levels of tobacco-specific nitrosamines (the carcinogens) detected in electronic cigarettes were extremely low, below the level allowed in nicotine replacement products, such as nicotine patches, inhalers and gum. The agency is not threatening to take nicotine patches or gum off the market, although they too contain detectable levels of carcinogens.
The nicotine in electronic cigarettes and FDA-approved nicotine replacement products is derived from tobacco, which makes traces of some tobacco carcinogens essentially inevitable.
The level of the same tobacco-specific nitrosamines in conventional cigarettes is at least 300 to 1,400 times higher than what has been detected in electronic cigarette cartridges. In other words, you would have to smoke as many as 1,400 electronic cigarettes to be potentially exposed to the same amount of these carcinogens as smoking one conventional cigarette.
In fact, the FDA failed to perform the laboratory test of most importance: a comparison of the presence of, and concentrations of, toxins and carcinogens in electronic cigarettes and conventional ones. Scientific studies have demonstrated that conventional cigarettes contain 57 identified carcinogens, while electronic cigarettes have not been found to contain any carcinogens at higher than trace levels.
The bottom line is this: Conventional cigarettes have been thoroughly tested. They are known to contain at least 10,000 chemicals, including about 57 carcinogens. Electronic cigarettes deliver nicotine without these 10,000 chemicals and 57 carcinogens. It doesn’t take a rocket toxicologist to figure out that electronic cigarettes are a much, much safer alternative to conventional ones.
Unfortunately, what the FDA and the anti-smoking groups are essentially telling smokers is that they would rather have them continue to smoke the most toxic cigarettes — the conventional ones — rather than switch to a product that is likely orders of magnitude safer.
The question the FDA and the anti-smoking groups are asking is: “Are electronic cigarettes safe?” That is not the right question. The right question is: “Are electronic cigarettes much safer than conventional ones?” The FDA and anti-smoking groups are comparing electronic cigarettes to a solution of spring-fresh Maine mountain stream water. What they need to compare electronic cigarettes to is a Marlboro cigarette.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems with e-cigarettes that need to be addressed. This doesn’t mean e-cigarette manufacturers shouldn’t be asked to make certain changes, such as instituting tighter quality control procedures and making sure the propylene glycol is devoid of diethylene glycol. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be restrictions on the sale of these devices to minors.
But it does mean that it is lunacy to ban the product, especially given that the very same FDA is now approving deadly Marlboros, Winstons, Kools, Newports, Camels and others.
The FDA and anti-smoking groups are on the verge of losing sight of the actual objective of public health regulation: to improve the overall population’s health. The combination of FDA approval of conventional cigarettes and FDA banning of the much safer electronic ones would be ludicrous, would have detrimental population health effects and would send exactly the wrong message to the public.
The real threat to our children’s health is not electronic cigarettes. It’s the real ones.