Friday, October 18, 2013
Electronic cigarettes need reasoned regulation
Reason and common sense are words rarely used together when it comes to government regulation. However, those words might actually describe what’s happening lately when it comes to electronic cigarettes.
Electronic cigarettes are the result of a combination of the free market innovation to improve a consumer product largely in reaction to serious health concerns, government regulation and taxation.
Various governments from local municipalities to entire countries seem to be struggling with how to regulate and/or tax electronic cigarettes. With the growth of electronic cigarettes increasing dramatically, so do the opportunities and calls for regulation. Wells Fargo Securities recently estimated that electronic cigarette sales could reach $1.7 billion this year with much of that coming online, but with an increasing presence at retail outlets.
Some in the United States would have the federal government regulate electronic cigarettes just like regular cigarettes. However, since e-cigs are clearly so different from traditional cigarettes, it’s not quite that simple.
What regulators can’t seem to figure out or decide is exactly how to classify electronic cigarettes? Are they more like traditional cigarettes, more of a smoking cessation device, a combination of those two, or something else entirely?
To look further into those questions, let’s examine what electronic cigarettes do: Once inhaled, they deliver a relatively odorless vapor using a small battery and cartomizer/atomizer or filter. The vapor generally consists of solution of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and polyethylene glycol mixed with varying nicotine levels and flavors. Most are a combination of metal and plastic resembling a traditional cigarette, but others are more like cigars, pipes or hookahs.
What electronic cigarettes do not do is light with a flame, burn or smell. They contain no tobacco or paper, and can be used almost anywhere unless someone objects, which is pretty rare in my experience.
The electronic cigarette regulation debate seems to be divided into three aspects of technical, political and emotional.
We’ve touched on the technical side above, but e-cigs come in a wide variety of options varying from the most basic disposables up to more complicated vapor inhalers, liquids and more. Other choices include almost any flavor imaginable and nicotine levels from high down to zero.
The rapid technical innovation of electronic cigarettes is what is making the political and emotional issues so challenging and controversial.
On the political side, any push to regulate cigarettes is likely limited by many governments having much bigger problems and priorities like shutdowns and debt crisis, and public fatigue and hangover from the last half century of government battles with “big tobacco” over cigarette regulation and taxation.
A recent Washington Post article detailed some of the regulatory issues and major players, particularly the emergence of the big three tobacco companies Altria, Lorillard and Reynolds American in recent months.
After a 2010 Federal court decision that the FDA could not consider electronic cigarettes as drug delivery devices, most of the debate in the U.S. is focused on smaller, local issues like use in public places and sales to minors. As for taxation, the FDA and other governments are again struggling with how to classify e-cigs. The European Union also recently decided to classify e-cigs more like traditional cigarettes than drug delivery devices.
Another major area in question is regulation of electronic cigarette advertising and marketing. As e-cigs ads are becoming more prevalent, they are nowhere near the massive reach of traditional cigarette advertising back in the day. This is likely another area where government has bigger things on its plate and no one is really complaining.
One valid comparison is that electronic cigarettes are similar to energy drinks or even soda or coffee. They all contain varying levels of caffeine, nicotine and more, but have no tobacco and aren’t mind-altering like alcohol, marijuana or others.
Even the most rationale arguments about government regulation and politics often boil down to raw emotion. Traditional cigarettes are easier to demonize because of their lingering odor and negative health concerns.
Some are trying to portray electronic cigarettes through emotional issues like them being a gateway for smokers, especially teenagers, exaggerated dangers of explosion, or recent stories of using them to smoke marijuana.
At some point, electronic cigarette regulation will come down to money. It’s a matter of how much the industry makes, how much government can tax it and whether anyone really cares enough on either side.