The war on smoking is one of America's great success stories. In 1964, four in ten adults smoked; today fewer than two in ten are hooked, saving millions of lives and sparing even more people the pain of kicking addiction.
Why this happened is no mystery. Strong warning labels convinced adults that cigarettes are deadly. Bans on sales to minors and high taxes deterred teenagers from taking up the habit, which almost no one is dumb enough to start after age 19. Marketing restrictions and public smoking bans turned smoking's image from glamorous to poisonous.
Now, with the sales of electronic cigarettes soaring, the nation might need to do this all over again.The danger e-cigarettes pose is likely less because no tobacco is smoked, but they are just as addictive, and as with cigarettes in yesteryear, when magazine ads quoted doctors saying smoking is good for you, the risks are not fully understood.
So on Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration stepped in, asserting authority to regulate the devices. Slow off the mark, the FDA has allowed e-cigarettes to gain a foothold that could foster resistance. But unless addiction is bliss, the agency is right to get on the case, as long as it sticks to the proven model: stop teens, but inform adults, who can make their own choices..
E-cigarettes — battery-operated nicotine inhalers — have the potential to help smokers quit, as their makers are quick to point out. Even so, the jury is still out on whether and how well they will work, and the trade-off is that others will become addicted, then potentially move on to tobacco.
E-cigarette makers, including many of the same companies that brought you a product that still kills 480,000 people a year, are using the same old come-ons. In ads for Lorillard's blu eCig, rugged men and sexy women talk about the freedom to "vape" anywhere they want, while images of flirting in a bar or "vaping" in front of a mountain range show how exciting the experience can be.
Some makers hand out free samples, sponsor sports and entertainment events, and sell e-cigarettes with candy-like flavors — all prohibited for traditional cigarettes.
More teenagers are experimenting with e-cigarettes, too. In 2012, 1.8 million middle-school and high-school students tried them — double the number in 2011. One in five of the middle-schoolers said they had never smoked before. It doesn't help that 17 states allow their sale to minors.
Federal intervention is clearly needed. Under the new proposal, the FDA would prohibit sales to those younger than 18 both in stores and online, ban free samples, mandate warning labels and require manufacturers to tell the government what's in their products.
Neither marketing nor advertising restrictions are part of this package, but they might come later. Such restrictions require a strong foundation of research and evidence and are vulnerable to attacks in court. While several members of Congress criticized the FDA for failing to include them, the agency is smart to move more deliberately.
But don't expect any of this — even the most critical rules — to happen fast. The regulatory process is sluggish, and FDA leaders wouldn't even hazard a guess as to how long the process could take. That is not encouraging.
You can bet there'll be pushback from the industry and its lobbyists. While manufacturers have talked publicly about favoring reasonable regulation, the list of what they don't want is long, including any attempt to regulate ads.
Thursday's historic announcement moves in the right direction to rein in a product that at the very least can addict a whole new generation to nicotine. Weaning much of the public from smoking took 50 years. About 42 million smokers remain. No one wants to see that grueling process begin again.
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