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The finding was like a breath of fresh air, but the question of how the federal government should deal with electronic cigarettes continues to inflame.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week announced sweeping new regulations of the electronic cigarette industry, a reference that oversimplifies the terrain of independent local "vape" shops and large-scale manufacturers who produce the nicotine-delivering liquid through the devices.

What’s the point?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration should be commended for its decision to pursue regulatory action against e-cigarettes is welcome and long overdue.

E-cigs are not tobacco. They are not "smoking," to the extent their users don't inhale carcinogenic smoke from burning tobacco. Rather, they are devices that heat a liquid form of nicotine to the point it becomes a vapor. The process is triggered by the inhaling action just like a smoker sucking on a cigarette. Those who "vape" can purchase the liquid in various flavors.

First introduced about a decade ago, e-cigs were welcomed by many who saw them as a less-dangerous and more societally friendly way to get that nicotine fix. As more and more public places went smoke free, the e-cig also became a much less offensive substitute. It's vapor dissipates in seconds and leaves no lingering "secondhand smoke" effect.

Until last week, the federal government didn't quite know how to respond to e-cigs, so the production, marketing and delivery of e-cigs and the nicotine liquids that supply them have been unregulated. It's been a free-for-all, anything goes style of industry. For something ingested/inhaled into one's body, that's rarely a good thing.

Now come the feds ready to save the day, a development that understandably leaves some people fidgety (as in "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.") The industry -- much of it connected to the out-of-vogue tobacco product makers -- has the nerve to suggest e-cigs should be left to the free market, that the federal government shouldn't get involved. All those years of practice have made them professionals at blowing smoke.

Advocates for e-cigs cite the devices' ability to help traditional smokers quit as evidence of their positive impact, and that cannot be entirely denied. Still, products that offer the introduction of nicotine-laced vapors into one's lungs seem precisely the kind of devices federal regulators should evaluate and regulate to ensure the public's safety.

Of particular interest are the number of children who have been sickened, some seriously, by ingesting the liquid packets that fuel e-cigarettes. They're often colorful vials tantalizing to small children who believe them to be tasty candy, but their ingredients can send kids to hospitals.

FDA regulations are indeed convoluted at times, and the process for establishing authority to regulate can be complex. Just the other day, a company filed the first legal challenge to the proposed regulatory scheme. Industry officials say the regulations may put many out of business.

There is no doubt the difficulties of navigating the regulatory scheme of a federal agency can be daunting, and the debate over whether that should be so is worth having. But that's a separate issue. E-cigs are a product with substantial health impacts. It only makes sense for the Food and Drug Administration to have a role in protecting the public's interests.

Those not in the grips of nicotine's addictive characteristics should be the priority of the Food and Drug Administration, not the convenience of e-cig manufacturers or the people who might be stepped down from smoking real-cigarettes. Will e-cigarettes promote some people to become nicotine users/addicts who otherwise would have never picked up such a habit? Can the lead some people to the more serious health risks of real, tobacco-based smoking?

If those questions aren't the FDA's business, we don't know what is.

Billions of dollars in profits are at stake in this industry, so there's going to be a fight. The risks of an unregulated market far outweigh the burdens the industry will argue are too great for them to bear.

The public's health and e-cigs' impact on it must remain the primary focus. We hope the Food and Drug Administration, having finally stepped in, not defends its authority to do so with zeal.

Commentary on 05/14/2016

Print Headline: A case of the vapors

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