Dai Sugano / Bay Area News Group

Ricky Huynh, 20, of San Jose exhales e-cigarette vapor last year at The Vape Bar in San Jose. Seated beside him is Anthony Bugna, also of San Jose. Health officials and government bodies are pushing for more research, possible taxation and regulation of e-cigs.

Editorial: Federal government is moving slow to face threat from the explosion of e-cigarette use

Published: Wednesday, Mar. 26, 2014 - 12:00 am

Somewhere in Washington, D.C., at this moment there’s a document with proposed regulations for e-cigarette use and distribution sitting on some bureaucrat’s desk, gathering dust.

Perhaps not literally speaking – this is the age of e-documents, after all – but figuratively quite true. It took the Food and Drug Administration more than three years to craft those regulations after a 2010 federal court ruling that e-cigarettes should be treated like tobacco. In October, the agency sent the regulations to the Office of Management and Budget and White House for review. But for unknown reasons the rules remain there, in limbo, while e-cigarette use – and the controversy surrounding them – catches fire.

Government moves slowly, but this is unacceptable inertia. President Barack Obama should put pressure on OMB to act on those rules – or, indeed, any rules – as soon as possible to throw water on the unregulated proliferation of a dangerous substance to users and to the public at large. There’s not even a prohibition against selling them to children.

Supporters of e-cigarettes say the devices are safe, but that’s simply not true. In fact, among the few things known about electronic cigarettes is that they use liquid nicotine – a neurotoxin so potent that one spoonful can kill an adult, not to mention a child. That’s made all the more terrifying by the fact that liquid nicotine is often sold in a variety of kid-enticing fruit and candy flavors.

A New York Times story earlier this week reported that accidental poisonings involving liquid nicotine are on the rise, as e-cigarette use increases.

We also know that a lot of the devices are manufactured in China. Exported goods from China have been implicated in a range of sickness and deaths, from tainted toothpaste to toxic chemicals added to drugs. Poisonous dog food and pet treats from China are suspected in hundreds of pet deaths in recent years, prompting the FDA last year to include pet food in the Food Safety Modernization Act so it could require some level of quality assurance.

For e-cigarettes, the FDA rules should come before anyone is harmed or killed from the devices or the liquid nicotine.

In an editorial earlier this month we supported cities that extended, or are considering extending, public use restrictions on tobacco cigarettes to their electronic cousins.

We do understand they are fundamentally different from each other. One emits a haze of proven carcinogenic smoke; the other produces an exhaled vapor that may or may not be dangerous to others. But until the public has assurance that certain standards are being met, until there are clear federal rules on use, and until there’s a prohibition on selling them to minors, these local bans are the only line of defense from any potential e-cigarette threat to users and unwary bystanders.

That’s not enough, of course. E-cigarettes are spreading like wildfire. The White House must stop stalling on the proposed regulations and put a damper on this threat before the public is burned.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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