U.S. attorneys general from 41 states urged the Food and Drug Administration this week to promptly issue promised regulations that would govern the sale of electronic cigarettes -- including sales to minors -- as concerns about the products mount among health officials.
A letter sent Tuesday from the attorneys to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg requested that the agency "take all available measures" to issue the rules by late October.
"Consumers are led to believe that e-cigarettes are a safe alternative to cigarettes, despite the fact that they are addictive, and there is no regulatory oversight ensuring the safety of the ingredients in e-cigarettes," the letter said.
There are currently no federal laws banning the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. More than two dozen states have already taken action to prohibit such sales.
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices that are shaped like tobacco cigarettes and contain a nicotine-based liquid that is vaporized and inhaled, simulating the experience of smoking.
A law passed in 2009 gave the FDA authority to regulate certain categories of tobacco products immediately: cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. Although it does not cover e-cigarettes, it does permit the FDA to expand its authority over all tobacco products by submitting new regulations.
"We ask the FDA to move quickly to ensure that all tobacco products are tested and regulated to ensure that companies do not continue to sell or advertise to our nation's youth," the attorneys general wrote.
An FDA representative told Al Jazeera in an email that a proposed rule covering e-cigarettes is in development. “The FDA intends to propose a regulation that would extend the agency’s ‘tobacco product’ authorities ... to other categories of tobacco products that meet the statutory definition of ‘tobacco product,’" the email said.
Currently, the FDA regulates only e-cigarettes that are marketed for therapeutic purposes, such as helping cigarette smokers taper off.
The FDA representative added, “Further research is needed to assess the potential public health benefits and risks of electronic cigarettes and other novel tobacco products.”
France’s National Consumers’ Institute tested 10 different e-cigarette models and found that three out of the 10 contained as much formaldehyde as ordinary cigarettes. The study, published in August, found that some e-cigarettes also contained other toxic substances including acrolein and propylene glycol, which raise risks of respiratory and immune deficiency problems.
Erika Sward, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association, told Al Jazeera, "With at least 250 brands (of e-cigarettes) on the market, there is a wide variety in the ingredients and health consequences. That's why it's so important that the FDA begin its oversight."
The attorneys’ letter comes weeks after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that the percentage of U.S. middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes more than doubled from 2011 to 2012. High school students who reported using an e-cigarette rose from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. More than 1.7 million middle and high school students nationwide tried e-cigarettes in 2012, the study found.
Sward said the results are "very troubling, because it means that kids are potentially beginning lifetime addictions to nicotine. Very little is known about the dangers of e-cigarettes."
She said that with flavors including cotton candy and bubble gum, e-cigarette companies “are clearly marketing to kids.”
Tom Kiklas, co-founder of a lobby group called the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, said he disagrees. “These are two different arguments,” he told Al Jazeera. “One is whether companies should be allowed to produce flavors, and the other, should they be sold to minors.” He said the issue of whether the products were flavored would be irrelevant if sales to minors were banned.
The FDA lists October 2013 as the estimated date for when the proposed rules will be released for public feedback, after which final regulations would be developed.