Vaping's Wild West Days Are Over

The long-awaited FDA regulations on e-cigarettes are here. Vapers, get your kicks while you can.

Apr 24 2014, 2:30pm
Image: rpavich/Flickr

We knew it was coming soon, and now the Federal Drug Administration has released its long-awaited proposed regulations for e-cigarettes. The end of the vaping free-for-all is in sight.

The proposed law would restrict selling e-cigs (and pipes, hookahs and possibly cigars) to anyone under 18, and start IDing customers to make sure. It would ban merchants from giving out free samples, which is real bad news for the vape shops springing up around the country. It would require warning labels with ingredients on products, namely calling out the fact that the e-cigarette contains nicotine which is addictive.

E-cig companies would have to get FDA approval for any new products, which is bound to put a plug in the nascent cyberpunk vape scene where elaborate mods can sell online for thousands of dollars apiece. Companies could also no longer market themselves as “health” products without citing specific scientific evidence to back the claims up, which will reign in the legion of startups launching e-cigs as a smoking cessation tool.

Notably absent from the regulations: The agency isn’t cracking down on flavored liquids, which e-cig opponents argue make the devices more appealing to kids. It’s not touching TV ad campaigns, which opponents also worry are targeting young people and revitalizing the "cool" image the anti-smoking campaign has worked so hard to squash over the last half century.

The FDA said the research around electronic cigs, which vaporize liquid nicotine instead of burning tobacco, is still too preliminary to warrant rules that are too strict. So the agency is basically proposing a compromise here. It’s responding to the growing pressure to stop dilly dallying and flex its authority over the digital version of the cigarettes it already regulates, while recognizing that more research is needed to fully understand the public health implications of the new trend.

Until now, absent of any word from the federal agency, the e-cig business has been going hog wild, booming into a multibillion dollar industry operating with no oversight—though some cities have started enacting their own local bans on e-smoking. (Ironically, many e-cig advocates were actually eager for this day to come, figuring the federal regulations would be more lax than the all-out bans some places have enacted while waiting on the FDA.)

The regulations won't kill the booming e-cig biz. But the Wild West days of vape culture are over. Or rather, will be, once the proposed rules are approved, which could take months or even years. The proposal is open to public comment for 75 days, at which point the agency will make final changes. “If it takes more than a year to finalize this rule, the FDA isn’t doing its job,” Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids told the New York Times.

The approval process is bound to get tied up and in the heated debate over the controversial products, and bogged down by the powerful lobbies on both sides. Big tobacco is now entrenched in the vape business itself, with most of the major companies having added an e-cig product to their stable. But there are also major health groups fighting tooth-and-nail not to undo the decades of work they’ve spent fighting cancer-causing smokes, and most aren't convinced e-cigarettes are any less dangerous than their combustible counterparts.

Vapers, get your kicks while you can.