E-Cigarettes: The ‘E' Is for Enigmatic (Craig Douglass On Consumers)

December’s column, headlined “The Smoker Who Came in From the Cold,” carried our first discussion of e-cigarettes, a relatively new consumer phenomenon. So consider this Part 2, which is offered as an update, coming on the heels of the Food & Drug Administration’s recent proposal to bring the e-cigarette category of products under its regulatory purview.

Congress in 2009 gave the FDA power to regulate tobacco products. Consequently, because e-cigarettes deliver nicotine to the user, and nicotine is derived from tobacco, the FDA is moving in to oversee the explosive development and growth of this product.

Under the proposals, regulators would require manufacturers to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, print health warnings and ingredients on the product, and eliminate the distribution of free samples. What the FDA would not do is ban online sales or television advertising.

Nor would it halt the flavoring of the liquid delivering the nicotine vapor. We’re not talking about just menthol-flavored devices. More exotic than that. How about orange, watermelon, cinnamon, bubblegum, chocolate, coffee and peach!

Just in the past four months, since our original column on the subject, cities and states have been moving rapidly to address criticism of e-cigarette use and users by prohibiting certain sales as well as use of the devices indoors. (The impact of second-hand vapor has yet to be addressed.) Arkansas was a bit ahead of the new prohibitions, with the General Assembly in its 2013 regular session passing a law prohibiting the possession or purchase of e-cigarettes by minors and prohibiting retailers from selling to minors (Act 1451 of 2013).

A full understanding or explanation of the health-related impact of a nicotine-soaked cotton wick, suspended in propylene glycol, heated by a battery to create a vapor and then inhaled has, so far, not been made clear. Research is underway.

Questions remain, too, about whether intended use is a benefit or detriment to individuals who practice what is called “vaping.” As we asked in December, is the smokeless cigarette a gateway for teenagers to take up smoking? Do e-cigarettes provide those who would like to quit a weaning alternative? Or, for those who have successfully quit smoking, is vaping a way to reintroduce the addiction in a less offensive manner? It’s an enigma wrapped in a riddle.

Nevertheless, consumers, for whatever their justified reasons, are buying the devices in an estimated 5,000-plus retail shops around the country. And the projections for over-the-counter and online sales of the devices in the next 12 months top $2 billion. Sales in Europe are tracking U.S. sales almost identically.

In December, we were unsure what role American tobacco companies would play in this unfolding story. We now know every major tobacco firm in the U.S. is getting into the act. From a consumer-marketing standpoint, if the FDA were to begin clamping down on the manufacture and distribution of e-cigarettes, increasing the cost of production and sales, then the large tobacco companies would have a decided advantage over the upstart innovators, simply because of their deep pockets. Ironically, if this were to become a survival-of-the-fittest contest, tobacco companies would actually be aided by increased FDA regulation.

The public now has 75 days to comment on the proposed FDA regulations. Once the regulations are approved, or revised, e-cigarette companies will have to abide by the new restrictions immediately. But they will have two years to submit their products to the FDA for approval. In the meantime, they can continue to sell the devices as they exist today.

Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said, “Right now, for something like e-cigarettes, there are far more questions than answers.”

Craig Douglass is a Little Rock advertising agency owner and marketing and research consultant. He is president of Craig Douglass Communications Inc. Email him at Craig@CraigDouglass.com.

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