In the past 2-3 days I've noticed advertisements for "smart smoker" in several of the media sources I read including the NYT.
I haven't seen anything like this for years. Heck, I'd thought these ads were disallowed in the US.
Turns out these are "e-cigarettes", a drug delivery system that's marketed as reducing second hand smoke and as "legal to smoke anywhere". They are currently legal to advertise in the US, but not legal to import.
They are manufactured in China, and first become popular in the UK, where they've emerged from a "regulatory gap". The vendor web sites strongly imply these are "safer" than traditional cigarettes; that's not implausible per nicotine dose unit but it's certainly untested. They don't claim that they're "safer" than bungee jumping.
So how does one figure out who's behind these expensive ads (and, as it turns out, huge lobbying, marketing and legal initiatives)? In this case, Google is not a friend. Simple searches turn up vast numbers of results from a mixture of pro-smoking groups, retailers and spam blogs. A smoke screen, as it were.
On the other hand, scholar.google.com and PubMed have almost nothing on "e-cigarette" or "electronic cigarette". This has come on too quickly for public health and research to respond.
My best source to date has been a single June 2009 NY Times article, which I only found by restricting my Google search to site:nytimes.com. That's where I learned this innovation was made in China. The "smoke" is inhaled propylene glycol, an antifreeze component (see also poisoned toothpaste (Chinese diethylene glycol). Emphases mine:
FALL RIVER, Mass. — During 34 years of smoking, Carolyn Smeaton has tried countless ways to reduce her three-pack-a-day habit, including a nicotine patch, nicotine gum and a prescription drug. But stop-smoking aids always failed her.
Then, having watched a TV infomercial at her home here, Ms. Smeaton tried an electronic cigarette, which claimed to be a less dangerous way to feed her addiction. The battery-powered device she bought online delivered an odorless dose of nicotine and flavoring without cigarette tar or additives, and produced a vapor mist nearly identical in appearance to tobacco smoke.
... the Food and Drug Administration has already refused entry to dozens of shipments of e-cigarettes coming into the country, mostly from China, the chief maker of them, where manufacture began about five years ago. The F.D.A. took similar action in 1989, refusing shipments of an earlier, less appealing version, Favor Smoke-Free Cigarettes.
“These appear to be unapproved drug device products,” said Karen Riley, a spokeswoman for the agency, “and as unapproved products they can’t enter the United States.”
But enough of the e-cigarettes have made their way into the country that they continue to proliferate online and in the malls.
For $100 to $150 or so, a user can buy a starter kit including a battery-powered cigarette and replaceable cartridges that typically contain nicotine (though cartridges can be bought without it), flavoring and propylene glycol, a liquid whose vaporizing produces the smokelike mist. When a user inhales, a sensor heats the cartridge. The flavorings include tobacco, menthol and cherry, and the levels of nicotine vary by cartridge.
Propylene glycol is used in antifreeze, and also to create artificial smoke or fog in theatrical productions. The F.D.A. has classified it as an additive that is “generally recognized as safe” for use in food. But when asked whether inhaling it was safe, Dr. Richard D. Hurt, director of the Nicotine Dependence Center at the Mayo Clinic, said, “I don’t think so, but I’m not sure anyone knows for sure.”
Of the e-cigarettes themselves, Dr. Hurt added: “We basically don’t know anything about them. They’ve never been tested for safety or efficacy to help people stop smoking.”
Public health officials also worry that the devices’ fruit flavors, novelty and ease of access may entice children.
“It looks like a cigarette and is marketed as a cigarette,” said Jonathan P. Winickoff, an associate professor at the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children and chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Tobacco Consortium. “There’s nothing that prevents youth from getting addicted to nicotine.”
Sales and use of electronic cigarettes are already illegal on safety grounds in Australia and Hong Kong, and some other countries regulate them as medicinal devices or forbid their advertising. So far the United States has focused only on stopping them at the border, although Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, has asked the drug agency to take them off the market until they can be tested.
Distributors of electronic cigarettes fear that a bill making its way through Congress that would give the F.D.A. the authority to regulate tobacco could be used to put them out of business as well. The bill has passed the House and could be taken up by the Senate this week.
The only American study of electronic cigarettes, now under way at Virginia Commonwealth University and financed by the National Cancer Institute, deals not with the kind of safety questions raised by propylene glycol but rather with the amount of nicotine processed by the bodies of the products’ users.
Another study, conducted this year at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and financed by Ruyan, an electronic cigarette company, shows that users typically receive 10 percent to 18 percent of the nicotine delivered by a tobacco cigarette...
So what we have here is a novel unregulated drug delivery system involving inhaled propylene glycol that is manufactured in China, a nation famous for the quality and regulation of its regulated Heparin supply. It is perfectly designed for sale to children and to Darwin award wannabes.
The good news is that the GOP no longer controls the FDA. That doesn't mean we can go back to sleep. The GOP will be back, and with Palin and Bachman in control it will be worse than ever. This beast needs to be driven back into its cage.
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