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Editorial: E-cigarettes are a new threat to kids’ health

Hard to believe we didn’t see this one coming.

A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that the number of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes is growing at a startling pace. One in 10 high school students said they had tried an e-cigarette last year, up from one in 20 in 2011. About 3 percent said they had used one in the last 30 days. In total, 1.8 million middle and high school students said they had tried e-cigarettes in 2012.

Researchers now worry that a device marketed as a way to give hard-core smokers a healthier alternative may actually be causing more problems than it’s solving – not only luring non-smokers but perhaps also leading teens toward real cigarettes, even as producers insist they’re drawing smokers away from the real deal. (“With an electronic cigarette, you have the potential for massive harm reduction,” Murray Kessler, CEO of the Lorillard Tobacco Co., insisted in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.)

E-cigarettes are battery-powered gadgets that deliver nicotine vaporized to form an aerosol mist. Though most researchers say e-cigarettes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes, they also say the health effects remain unclear.

What can be done?

New Hampshire was one of the first states to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in 2010, a measure other states should mimic. None of the other New England states, for instance, has a similar law – a situation that might thwart some of New Hampshire’s good intentions if kids can get e-cigarettes just over the border.

New York has gone one step further, banning e-cigarette smoking within 100 feet of an entrance to a public or private school, a smart move which underscores the focus on keeping teens from experimenting.

Two years ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it intended to regulate e-cigarettes, but that has not yet happened. There are two obvious areas where the FDA should focus some quick attention.

First, many e-cigarettes are made with flavors that no doubt attract young people. Lorillard, for instance, makes nicotine cartridges in flavors such as “cherry crush” and “vivid vanilla,” which apparently tastes like ice cream – all the while insisting that it doesn’t market its products to teenagers. The FDA should look hard at the connection between sweet flavors and teens and consider whether that version of e-cigarettes, specifically, should be prohibited.

Second, there are no rules against advertising e-cigarettes, even on television, which has created a strange back-to-the future phenomenon in which e-cigarettes are marketed in much the same way traditional cigarettes were before times and laws changed.

Actress Jenny McCarthy recently signed on as an endorser of the Blu eCigs brand. The same brand also uses a dashing young actor named Stephen Dorff, who looks extra hip smoking his Blu at the beach. A brand called Njoy King uses the hit song by Foreigner, “Feels Like the First Time,” in its commercials. An ad for the South Beach Smoke brand shows an ultra-sultry woman puffing on an e-cigarette in an ultra-short black dress and the tagline, “The better smoking choice.” An ad for a brand called Ever-Smoke features a beautiful young woman with an e-cigarette in a hazy field of flowers. Aah, nature!

The FDA should think hard about whether such advertising glamorizes not just e-cigarettes but cigarettes and smoking in general – a big step backward – and whether the potential health risks justify regulating or banning such ads.

It took several generations to start changing the culture around smoking in the United States, a job that’s still not complete. All that hard work by government, lawyers, health experts and parents may well be threatened by the rise of e-cigarettes.

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