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FDA authority should keep pace with innovation

Last week, attorneys general from more than two-dozen states and jurisdictions implored the CEOs of Walmart, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Safeway and Kroger to stop selling tobacco products in stores with pharmacies.

“There is a contradiction in having these dangerous and devastating tobacco products on the shelves of a retail chain that services health care needs,” said a letter signed by the legal officers. “The availability of such products in a retail store that also serves as a pharmacy normalizes tobacco use; furthermore, selling tobacco products in the same store as smoking-cessation products is likely to increase impulse tobacco purchases among those trying to quit and undermines their efforts.”

But the letter didn’t address the more pressing issues surrounding e-cigarettes, which are sold without federal oversight, and in some states are available to minors.

An e-cigarette is a battery-operated device that heats an element, which often contains nicotine, into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. Viewed by some as helping with smoking cessation by providing a “cleaner” smoking experience, critics contend that e-cigarettes offer a gateway to traditional smoking.

Part of the uncertainty is attributed to the fact that e-cigarettes do not currently fall within the FDA’s regulatory authority. Since they’ve not been fully studied, consumers don’t know how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are inhaled during use, according to the FDA.

But what’s more shocking is that only 30 states prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes — which are sometimes flavored to smell and taste like cotton candy and bumble gum — to minors.

A recent NY Times article also raises questions about the safety of “e-liquids,” which are used with e-cigarettes and sold without federal oversight. When accidentally ingested or absorbed through the skin, e-liquids, which contain the nicotine and flavoring that is heated by the e-cigarette, can cause vomiting, seizures and even death in small children, according to the Times report. 

The FDA, which currently has regulatory authority over cigarettes, cigarette tobacco and smokeless tobacco, is seeking to grow its reach to "e-cigarettes, hookah, cigars, pipe tobacco, other novel tobacco products and future tobacco products." While it's encouraging that the agency recognizes its need to stay in lock step with innovations by studying potential risks and providing guidance, regulations that keep pace with the fast-changing marketplace are long overdue.

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