Friday, May 1, 2009

The Electronic Cigarette: A Better Alternative to Smoking?

By Tiffany Y. Hsia

Electronic cigarette smokers have begun to rally together as the Food and Drug Administration placed a ban on e-cigarette importation in the United States.

Originally launched in 2006 by the Ruyan Company in China, the electronic cigarette has been creating controversy around the world in recent months. When it first arrived onto the market, the new invention was lauded by smokers and health professionals as a breakthrough in health technology. Even the World Health Organization conceded that, “it does not discount the possibility that the electronic cigarette could be useful as a smoking cessation aid.”

“I was a smoker for more than 10 years and suffered from many of the side effects of smoking…After three days of using the e-cig, I haven’t touched a normal cigarette since. It’s been almost a year and I lost my smoker’s cough, my lungs are open and clear and I never have to clear my throat anymore” said Sunil Rao,27, of Edison, N.J.

However, as the technology has grown in popularity and thousands have joined the ranks as e-smokers, the tide is beginning to turn as it attracts the attention of its fiercest competitors, the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries, and the federal government.

So what exactly is an e-cigarette? In essence, the electronic cigarette is an alternative method of nicotine-replacement therapy. It is an electronic device that replicates the smoking experience. It is composed of three parts; a battery with a LED indicator light, an atomizer and a cartridge/mouthpiece.

As a person inhales on an electronic cigarette, the LED indicator lights up and the atomizer vaporizes the nicotine liquid inside the cartridge, producing an odorless water vapor that resembles smoke. The nicotine satisfies cravings, the ritual of smoking satisfies an addict psychologically and because the body absorbs the nicotine inhaled, the exhaled vapor is not dangerous like secondhand smoke.

For all intensive purposes, it looks like you’re smoking a normal cigarette and it feels like you’re smoking a normal cigarette, but you avoid almost all of the negative aspects of smoking a normal cigarette.

The high price tag on electronic cigarettes sold at mall kiosks like Smoking Everywhere may dissuade many cigarette smokers from testing out the new technology but smaller companies like, a New Jersey based online retailer of e-cigarettes, offer electronic cigarette starter kits for as little as $50, significantly less than the price of a carton of cigarettes.

An electronic cigarette sounds like a godsend for the millions of smokers out there. So why is there controversy surrounding it?

Opponents of the e-cigarette question the safety standards of the product, which is mainly produced in China. Since China’s track record on product safety hasn’t had too many glowing reviews lately, it seems inevitable that the tarnish has been slated onto the electronic cigarette, despite its benefits.

The major focus of the opposition isn’t to the technology itself -, especially since Philip Morris, the grand daddy of cigarettes, has developed its own electronic drug delivery device, the Aria Inhaler, as well as their newest invention, developed by Altria group to be released in 2009, the Smokefree Innotec Rauchless, but rather the nicotine that is contained in the cartridges. Currently, most of the nicotine cartridges and liquid refills are produced in China, where regulation standards are not as closely enforced as they are in the United States. The nicotine allows the e-cigarette to fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA, which regulates the use of nicotine in smoking cessation products.

One of the most vocal protesters against the electronic cigarette is New Jersey’s own Senator Frank R. Lautenberg. Lautenberg recently wrote a letter urging the FDA to remove electronic cigarettes off the market until they are proven safe. Lautenberg has a history of “protecting” Americans from the harmful effects of smoking and is known as an anti-tobacco crusader. He authored the law that banned smoking on airplanes, as well as in buildings that house federally-funded facilities that serve children.

What is a bit hypocritical about “the anti-smoking champion,” is that he is also currently supporting legislation that would protect standard tobacco cigarettes, which are scientifically proven to kill and has killed millions of people around the world. The Waxman Bill would authorize the FDA to regulate labeling, marketing, transport, content and sale of tobacco products. Another unsettling fact about the Waxman Bill that Lautenberg is supporting is that Philip Morris USA supports the legislation as well.

According to an open records search done by the Ashtray Blog, not only did Senator Lautenberg openly receive more than $126,000 in 2008 alone for his political campaign from pharmaceutical companies but he also has close ties with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which was established by Johnson & Johnson, a pharmaceutical company that makes billions of dollars selling nicotine-replacement therapy. The question arises to Senator Lautenberg’s true motivations. Are they heart felt? Or possibly pocket lined? A reply to these statements went unanswered by Lautenberg’s press office.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, stated that the success rate of current smoking cessation aids is at less than 10%. He also recently stated in an article, “How special that a public policy maker who touts himself as being a champion of the public’s health as well as some of the leading national health advocacy organizations are demanding that we ban what is clearly a much safer cigarette than those on the market, but that we allow, protect, approve and institutionalize the really toxic ones.”

Another defender of the electronic cigarette is Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida. Rep. Stearns, who has been seen openly smoking and demonstrating his own electronic cigarette at the cafeteria in Capitol Hill, has sent electronic cigarettes to House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio and to President Obama. According to an article in The Hill, Stearns stated, “There is no evidence that the device is harmful. Before the FDA takes any immediate action, it should put forward scientific evidence that these products are harmful or unsafe. These e-cigarettes are smokeless and do not produce carcinogens.”

While perusing through a popular e-cigarette forum, the general consensus was that responsible electronic cigarette vendors do not promote e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation product; the ones that do have been branded as interested in soley profit and are responsible for garnering the unwanted attention from the FDA.

The largest and most well-known of these vendors, Smoking Everywhere¸ filed a lawsuit against the FDA on April 28, 2009 stating that the FDA overstepped its authority and did not follow procedures as required by the Administrative Procedure Act in its banning of the importation of electronic cigarettes. They are also requesting that the electronic cigarette be classified as a tobacco product under which the FDA would have no jurisdiction. The lawsuit was prompted by a large shipment that was recently confiscated by customs under the FDA import ban on electronic cigarette products.

The lawsuit, if approved can only be seen as a short-term solution for electronic cigarette vendors. If the FDA gains the right to regulate tobacco under the Waxman Bill, then the protection that Smoking Everywhere seeks will become moot. Not only that but it can further harm the electronic cigarettes road to full and legal acceptance.

This lawsuit raises even more questions in the electronic cigarette’s short and traumatic life. If electronic cigarettes are categorized as tobacco products then wouldn’t they also fall under the same restrictions that currently ban tobacco use as well as face additional taxation and restrictive advertising laws? Perhaps an alternative route would be for electronic cigarette products to have its own separate classification that does not tie them in with tobacco or medical products.

The battle of the electronic cigarette versus everyone else is rooted in power, control and money. The mere existence of this new technology has already proven to be a threat to Big Tobacco with thousands of cigarette smokers converting to electronic cigarettes around the world according to eSmokers of the US. Big Pharma has also been hit with a loss in nicotine replacement therapy revenue. Even the government has lost revenue on tobacco taxes in the short-time the electronic cigarette has been sold. Will the e-cigarette, a product with the potential to help millions, eventually be outlawed? It definitely will if the FDA, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco gets its way.

Tiffany Y. Hsia is a second bachelor’s degree student in Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University and hopes to pursue a career in entertainment public relations and broadcast journalism. She completed her first B.A. in History and Geography from Rutgers University and graduated with honors.