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Sept. 2, 2013
TOPEKA Four years ago, when Rick Hasan first started selling electronic cigarettes, they seemed destined to be little more than a novelty, he said — the same as compact pipes and other smoking accessories available at his store.
"People were curious, but few kept buying. They would go back to the real cigarette," said Hasan, owner of Payless Smokes, a convenience and tobacco shop in Topeka. Now, "the e-cigarettes are taking up quite a bit of market share."
These days, e-cigarettes account for 15 percent of his sales, he said. Nationwide e-cigarettes are booming, with annual sales projected to reach $1.7 billion by year’s end.
The battery-operated devices — which vaporize liquid containing nicotine — have yet to be regulated by the federal government, though officials have pledged for two years now that they ultimately will be.
"That’s why I’ve been calling the marketplace the wild, wild West," said Mitch Zeller, tobacco control chief at the federal Food and Drug Administration. "FDA has been on record since 2011 saying it intends to create a regulatory framework for electronic cigarettes. I can’t tell you when that’s going to happen but we are getting closer and closer."
In the meantime, several states and municipalities have banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors. In 2009, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzennegger vetoed a bill that would have regulated all e-cigarette sales in the state.
The challenges of regulating e-cigarettes and other new tobacco products will be among the topics of a presentation Zeller is scheduled to give at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 19 at the Kansas Public Health Association annual meeting in Wichita.
There’s been little research done on e-cigarettes, but among those studying the devices is Dr. Greg Connolly, professor of public health at Harvard University.
The future of e-cigarettes, Connolly said, hinges on how the FDA approaches regulation of them.
"This could be a tool — if it's regulated correctly — to help end dependence on cigarettes and nicotine. This is probably the best quitting device known to man," said Connolly, who co-authored an early study on e-cigarettes.
But they just as easily could become a means to hook more people on nicotine, he said.
"If the technology continues to develop...they could become even more addictive than the conventional cigarette — that's frightening," Connolly said.
Connolly said this fall he plans to publish research on a set of habit-forming compounds, or so-called "super juices," that have been in conventional cigarettes like Merit and Marlboro since the late 1970s — and that he has found to be present in some popular e-cigarettes.
These super juices — which aren't present in nicotine gum or patches — could help make e-cigarettes a more effective quitting aid because they would deliver the kick of a regular cigarette, Connolly said. And like the patch, he said, users could wean themselves off nicotine by stepping down the dosage — that is, provided e-cigarettes are regulated such that graduated doses of nicotine are required to be availed.
But Connolly, who has served on FDA's Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, said the agency does not seem poised to regulate e-cigarettes as a quitting aid. Rather, he said, FDA seems headed toward regulating them as tobacco products, which would leave the companies free to market the highest allowable dosages and essentially assure an ongoing supply of addicts or customers.
"FDA seems to be poised to ban internet sales, which is exactly what (big tobacco companies) want," Connolly said. "That will only destroy competition and hand the market over to (the big three companies) whose only mission is to make the most addictive product they can."
The three major companies are Lorillard, Philip Morris, and Reynolds American.
However, FDA’s tobacco chief Zeller said allowing smokers to satisfy their nicotine cravings with e-cigarettes — without inhaling tar and other toxic chemicals found in regular cigarette smoke — could be an effective way to reduce the overall health risk.
“FDA is poised to create comprehensive nicotine regulatory policy that acknowledges and recognizes that there is a continuum of risk,” Zeller said. “People are smoking for the nicotine but they’re dying from the tar. Nicotine is not a completely safe and benign compound, so don’t get me wrong. But it’s not the nicotine that’s killing people.”
The big three tobacco companies each have increasingly marketed e-cigarettes: "MarkTen" comes from Philip Morris, also the maker of Marlboro, "Blu" comes from Lorillard, also the maker of Newport; and the latest entrant is "Vuse" from Reynolds American, the maker of Camel.
Vuse — which in July began test-marketing in Colorado — is a game changer in e-cigarette technology, Connolly said.
That's because it has a larger battery — which better aerosolizes the vapor, delivering it deeper into the lungs — and a microchip to regulate the dosage of nicotine, he said.
Connolly said if FDA does regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products, he suspects tobacco companies will optimize the nicotine dosage such that e-cigarettes will mostly be used as a complement to smoking, not as an alternative.
Representatives of Reynolds American have not responded to inquiries for comment.
"E-cigarettes have come a long way. I was among those who thought they would fail...but surprisingly they're catching on," Connolly said, noting that the big three tobacco companies have begun capitalizing on consumer wariness of unknown chemicals that may be present in Chinese-made e-cigarettes by marketing their products as "made in the U.S.A."
The advertising sells them as the future, like the latest Apple product, Connolly said. "They're all high tech, all futuristic. They make the Marlboro Man look like a homeless person."
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