While most people weren't paying attention, leading tobacco companies popped out a new product line — electronic cigarettes. Sales are already soaring.
The good news is that these battery-operated nicotine inhalers contain no tobacco and might help some smokers quit. The bad news? Just about everything else.
E-cigarettes can be just as addictive as the real thing. In about half the states, children can buy them legally. The industry advertises on television, with the same sexy or macho come-ons that made smoking look glamorous for decades, before TV ads were banned in 1970.
Little is known about the long-term health effects of e-cigarettes. And they can be annoying: Because the devices aren't subject to indoor smoking bans in most states, a thick white vapor, which looks like smoke even if it isn't, could be coming soon to movie theaters, restaurants and workplaces near you. As celebrity Jenny McCarthy pitches in an ad for Lorillard's blu eCigs, "I feel free to have one almost anywhere."
With two more major tobacco companies, Altria and R.J. Reynolds, introducing entries in test markets this past summer, it's time to decide: Does the country really want another product that can addict users, especially kids? And if e-cigarettes turn out to be dangerous, isn't it better to find out before millions of people are addicted, rather than after?
There are plenty of reasons for caution.
Nicotine in traditional cigarettes is so addictive that it rivals heroin and cocaine, says nicotine expert Neal Benowitz of the University of California-San Francisco. It's one reason that 20% of adults still smoke even though they know it can kill them and even though smokers have become pariahs who must huddle outside to light up.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable. Despite the industry's well-worn insistence that e-cigarettes are for adults only, teen use has taken off — not accidentally. E-cigarettes come in flavors, from traditional menthol to cherry and piña colada.
The share of middle- and high-school students who had tried them doubled last year from 2011 — for a total of 1.8 million teenagers. Even more troubling? One in five middle-school students who tried them said they had never smoked before. E-cigarettes could easily serve as a gateway to the real thing.
Even in states that have banned sales to teens, the industry has exacted a price, lobbying for measures that allow e-cigarettes to escape indoor smoking bans and the high cigarette taxes that are the most potent weapon against youth smoking.
As for whether e-cigarettes might help some smokers quit, the jury is still out. The best scientific study to date, in New Zealand, found them to be only marginally more effective than nicotine patches.
So what's the right response? At least until more studies are done, states ought to treat these devices as they do traditional cigarettes, with bans on youth sales and indoor smoking. The federal government, slow to move so far, should speed up its decision to oversee contents, flavors and perhaps advertising.
After decades of hard-fought gains against nicotine-delivery devices and the problems they cause, this is no time to relapse.