Restrict e-cigarette gateway for young people

Electronic cigarettes have been touted as a safe way to help smokers kick their habit. While one study has found that they are “modestly effective at helping smokers to quit,” health experts fear that “vaping” is just creating legions of new ones by hooking youngsters on nicotine.

That fear appears justified. A new study by the Centers for Disease Control shows that 43.9 percent of American teens who use e-cigarettes report that they are likely to smoke regular cigarettes within the next year compared with 21.5 percent of those who had never vaped. E-cigarettes can have candy and fruit flavorings that appeal to young people.

Big Tobacco, which has been acquiring greater market share in the $3 billion e-cigarette business, sees the products as a way to keep hooking people on nicotine. And it knows that the most effective way to do that is to get them addicted before the age of 18. Studies have shown that those who aren’t addicted by age 18 likely never will be.

While the Food and Drug Administration announced proposed rules to regulate e-cigarettes in April, anti-smoking advocates fear that they don’t go far enough to restrict young people’s access. For instance, they don’t restrict Internet sales or marketing that might appeal to youths.

Significant inroads have been made against underage smoking, with about 15.7 percent of high school students smoking compared to 36.4 percent in 1997, says the CDC. That drop has been attibuted to everything from higher cost to the stigmatization of smoking.

But the rate could start creeping up again, with e-cigarettes serving as a gateway. Twice as many teens (6.8 percent) used e-cigarettes in 2012 as in 2011 (3.3 percent). That’s one reason the World Heath Organization is pushing for tough restrictions on the sale and use of e-cigarettes, calling for bans on indoor use and sale to minors. It would even prohibit use of flavorings that might appeal to young users.

The American Heart Association is also concerned. It has called for more research on the safety of e-cigarettes as well as restrictions on marketing, advertising and sales, especially to young people. Many e-cigarette products come from China and other foreign countries, and little is known about potential toxins and carcinogens in their ingredients.

Health experts recommend that indoor smoking bans apply to e-cigarettes as well. That makes sense. Until the industry can show that e-cigarette vapor is safe, it should be treated the same way as secondhand smoke.