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Monday, February 16, 2015

Ethical issues of the e-cigarette industry

E-cigarette industry regulation
E-cigarettes are not taxed the same way as tobacco is
The ethics of electronic cigarette advertising on television are up for debate as this growing industry gains social and commercial influence. As of yet, the same sweeping cultural change that was facilitated by the tobacco industry in much of the 20th century has not been the effect of the e-cigarette industry. However, some people and organizations are concerned digitally controlled nicotine vaporizers and the like could have negative effects on health and poor social consequences if advertising restrictions are not enacted.

Nicotine replacement therapy

Electronic cigarettes are claimed to be effective nicotine replacement therapy products when used for the purpose of smoking cessation. Furthermore, according to Nicotine Science and Policy, research suggests e-cigarettes are even better at curbing smoking than traditional methods such as nicotine gum and nicotine patches. If e-cigarettes are advertised as over-the-counter nicotine replacement therapy or OTC NRT, then organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration currently have the authority to regulate them as though they are. 

Regulatory precedence

In April 2013, an FDA announced it was submitting its approval for loosened regulations on nicotine replacement therapy to Congress. This decision is claimed to have been largely influenced by petitions from several organizations advocating the safety of these products. So, if electronic cigarettes are legally defined as nicotine replacement therapy, then they can be advertised on television as OTC NRT products. Yet when viewing an e-cigarette television commercial, this use is not always immediately apparent as phrases such as, “The perfect puff” and “What smokers want”, do little to advocate smoking cessation not to mention the avoidance of the topic altogether.

Legal classification

Despite the existing protections afforded to OTC NRT producers, e-cigarettes have the potential to become widespread recreational products. This has others worried as e-cigarettes could then become a gateway product to tobacco cigarettes in addition to gaining added exposure, access and use among minors. Moreover, according to Bloomberg-Businessweek, the smokeless vapor emitted by e-cigarettes is not necessarily without negative effect, and regulators are considering rules to classify the vaporizers as non-medical devices. This threatens the television advertising protections e-cigarette manufacturers have under the OTC NRT label.

Legislative reform

A recent attempt by the State of Utah to pass a bill that restricts purchase of e-cigarettes to persons 19 years of age and above reflects growing concern about the safety of the products. A similar bill has also been voted on in the New Mexico legislature. Moreover, according to Deseret News, should the bill pass, e-cigarettes would be treated as though they are tobacco; this places limitations on both television advertising and sales of them. Additional support for e-cigarette regulation is evident in a Huffington Post publication where the Chief Academic Officer at the UVA School of Nursing points out the harmful presence of “carcinogenic nitrosamines” within a “mist of propylene glycol”.

Opposition and lobbying

Advocates of e-cigarettes oppose legislative attempts to restrict the devices. Among those seeking no or limited regulation of e-cigarettes are smokers, associations, tobacco producers and e-cigarette manufacturers. According to the Washington Post, e-cigarette producers, and even some regulators, are either citing lack of research indicating the potential harmful effects of e-cigarettes, or are simply asserting that the vaporizers are harmless. Moreover, those who believe in this $2 billion a year industry are able to cite financial benefits such as job growth in e-cigarette manufacturing as an additional economic reason to limit their regulation.

The question of ethics surrounding television advertising of e-cigarettes revolves around the key topics of public health and the social behavior of minors. It these base issues are proven to be irrelevant, untrue or significantly unsubstantiated, then e-cigarettes have greater ethical grounds to be less controlled than tobacco products. Furthermore, as OTC NRT, e-cigarettes are not salable to minors since they contain the controlled substance nicotine. However, if they were not to contain nicotine, the regulation of such items would be questionable unless smokeless vapor without nicotine is deemed to be harmful in some way.

Image: Stux/Pixabay; US-PD