EDITORIAL: Local governments must restrict e-cigarettes

FresnoMarch 23, 2014 

A customer tries out a flavor of electronic cigarette "eJuices" at an e-cigarette store and lounge in Sacramento.

LEZLIE STERLING — lsterling@sacbee.com

Cigarettes kill. Everyone knows that, now.

But this nation reached that conclusion only after decades of studies, millions of deaths from lung cancer and heart attacks, and tobacco company lies. We learned the cigarette lesson the hard way. We shouldn't repeat that with the next generation of the burning tobacco stick -- electronic cigarettes.

These battery-powered devices heat liquid to deliver nicotine via steam, or vapor. Most, but not all, contain nicotine. They have a wide array of fun flavors like cotton candy and cheesecake.

Other than that, we know very little about them -- their long-term health effects, if they pose secondhand danger, what substances might be inside and whether they will reignite the cigarette epidemic.

That's troubling because e-cigarette use has exploded, with use doubling among teenagers in the past year. Major traditional cigarette makers have diversified into the e-cigarette market or are planning to get in this year.

It's time to put the brakes on.

The devices slipped onto the shelves of convenience stores across the nation thanks to a regulatory gray area between traditional combustible cigarettes and other nicotine products, such as patches and gum.

In 2010, U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon of Washington, D.C., blocked the FDA from treating them like drug-delivery devices, and indicated they should be regulated like tobacco products, thereby allowing e-cigarettes to proliferate virtually unregulated.

Depending on whom you ask, the smokeless alternatives to cigarettes are either the best thing to happen to public health since the polio vaccine or the worst thing since, well, cigarettes.

We are hoping for the former, but society needs to prepare for the latter. Local, state and federal authorities should regulate their use in public, enforce product quality standards and, most importantly, make sure these untested devices don't get into the hands of minors.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major U.S. cities have passed ordinances restricting public use of e-cigarettes within city limits. If the Fresno City Council is paying attention, our city will soon join them.

Without rigorous review by the Food and Drug Administration, the public can't know the impact of e-cigarettes. Cialis, a prescription erectile dysfunction drug, has been detected in some e-cigarettes. In other instances, devices that claimed not to contain nicotine actually did.

This isn't a surprise. Cigarette makers have a long documented record of deceiving the public.

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