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The FDA may be proposing regulations on electronic cigarettes in the very near future. “The FDA intends to propose a regulation that would extend the agency’s ‘tobacco-product‘ authorities — which currently only apply to cigarettes, cigarette tobacco, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco — to other categories of tobacco products that meet the statutory definition of ‘tobacco product,'” said Jenny Haliski, the FDA’s press officer for tobacco-related inquiries.

There are nearly 4 million Americans smoking e-cigarettes, according to the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, and the numbers are growing. But there are unanswered questions about the safety of these e-cigs and how businesses, state and local governments should define – and regulate –  the e-cig.

How safe are e-cigs? The makers of e-cigarettes assure us they are safer than traditional cigarettes and other tobacco products. Thomas Kidlas, co-owner of e-cigarette maker inLife and co-founder of the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association, argues that less is better. He likes to quote the FDA report that found (only) nine contaminates versus the 11,000 contained in a tobacco cigarettes and noted that the level of toxicity was shown to be far lower than those of tobacco cigarettes. However, in the most widely publicized study into the safety of e-cigarettes, “researchers analyzed two leading brands and concluded the devices did contain trace elements of hazardous compounds, including a chemical which is the main ingredient found in antifreeze.”

A new study published in the journal Nicotine and Tobacco Research shows that e-cigs generate nicotine emissions that can be inhaled by those in close proximity to the smoker. The researchers conducted two studies on three brands of e-cigs to investigate what the devices emitted into the surrounding air. They found that e-cigarettes are a source of second-hand exposure to nicotine, but not of other compounds released when tobacco is burned. And though the nicotine exposure was 10 times less than that from tobacco smoke, more research is needed. Another recent study from New York University researchers reported that e-cig smokers might not be spared such exposures. They inhale more nicotine because they puff more often and tend to breathe in more deeply than regular cigarette smokers. So higher nicotine consumption may be a risk for e-cig smokers.

Both studies suggest there’s much still to be learned about the health risks of e-cigarettes, including their effect on people in the same room with smokers.  And this is creating challenges for states and businesses that have no-smoking policies in place. With the exception of New York City and a few other places, most no-smoking ordinances are worded in a way that exempts e-cigs. Cities and workplaces are grappling with language, seeking legal advice and guidance from the FDA in how to define the e-cigarette.

The FDA needs to determine whether it is appropriate to establish regulations and guidelines for e-cigs.  Its mandate is to protect the health and safety of American citizens.  Are e-cigs a potential health hazard requiring federal regulation?  Time will tell, but what seems apparent is that not all is what it appears to be when it comes to e-cigs.

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