Editorial: Put brakes on unregulated e-cigarettes until they’ve been through proper review

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 wide array of fun flavors like cotton candy and passion fruit 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 particularly 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, these smokeless alternatives to cigarettes are either the best thing that has happened 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 such as New York, Chicago and Seattle have passed ordinances restricting public use of e-cigarettes within city limits. The cities of Davis and Rancho Cordova are looking at restrictions, and officials in Folsom and Roseville told The Sacramento Bee’s Cathy Locke they might look at e-cigarette regulation, too. They should.

When the Sacramento City Council votes to update its ordinance to restrict cigarette smoking on restaurant patios this year, it should also extend its rules to e-cigarettes.

Local governments have to take the lead because state and federal regulations aren’t likely to come soon.

Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, has tried to win approval of legislation to treat e-cigarettes the same as cigarettes. The bill languishes in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee whose chairman, Assemblyman Isadore Hall, a Los Angeles Democrat, has received $35,700 in tobacco company donations since 2009.

Julie Woessner, legislative director for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, contends e-cigarettes are safe alternatives to the real deal, and said the local restrictions are counterproductive to public health.

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps they can do what years of anti-tobacco public education have been able to do for long-term dedicated smokers.

Forgive our skepticism.

Without rigorous review by the Food and Drug Administration, the public can’t truly 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.

In 2006, U.S. Judge Gladys Kessler issued a withering 1,683-page decision concluding that tobacco companies “engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes.”

Kessler concluded the industry went out of its way to hook children on nicotine, all the while denying that its marketing was aimed at minors. Companies selling candy-flavored e-cigarettes are not marketing to adults. The tactic is a little too familiar.