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Are there any safety claims about e-cigarettes that we can trust?

There are a number of ways in which the products we buy can be dangerous. Some, like certain children’s toys, are dangerous because they are not age-appropriate for the intended audience and may contain small parts that are easy for young kids to choke on. In other cases, defective products are dangerous because they malfunction and cause injury to the user.

Then, there are products that are dangerous even if they function correctly. Much of the time, manufacturers of inherently dangerous or unhealthy products must include warning labels and abide by laws limiting sales to adults only. But in the absence of such restrictions, can consumers assume that a given product is safe? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

It is tempting to assume that if a product is on store shelves, it must have been approved as safe. But in the case of products like electronic cigarettes, their presence on store shelves has more to do with staying ahead of government regulation than actually being safe.

In recent years, sales of e-cigarettes have exploded, and “vaping” (inhaling water vapor mixed with nicotine or other substances) has become the new smoking. The e-cigarette industry is a multibillion-dollar one, in part, because these devices are new and largely unregulated. The Food and Drug Administration is currently proposing new rules to bring e-cigarettes under the agency’s regulatory authority.

The proposed rules would also ban individuals under the age of 18 from buying/using the devices and related products. Unfortunately, the rules would not take effect for at least another year, if not longer.

Companies that manufacture e-cigarette products have argued that there is no conclusive proof that they are dangerous or harmful to health. As such, they shouldn’t be subjected to rules governing regular cigarettes and indoor smoking bans.

But the burden should be on e-cigarette manufacturers to prove that they are safe, not on health advocacy groups to prove they are dangerous. Many of these products contain nicotine, a substance most often found in tobacco. It is already known that nicotine is addictive and can be harmful or lethal in high doses.

E-cigarettes may be safer than traditional tobacco cigarettes, but even that assertion is speculative. Until we have more scientific data on these products, the safest bet for consumers is to assume that e-cigarettes are unsafe.

Source: The New York Times, "F.D.A. Will Propose New Regulations for E-Cigarettes," Sabrina Tavernise, April 24, 2014

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