Unexpected flare-ups underscore need for e-cigarette regulation

Posted: Mar. 15, 2016 12:35 pm
EXPLODING hoverboards have gotten a lot of attention lately, but electronic cigarettes have also been showing a disturbing tendency to spontaneously combust, injuring a growing number of people whose devices have blown up in their faces or pockets.

Both types of products are powered by rechargeable lithium ion batteries that are suspected of catching fire when overcharged. The self-balancing scooters have caused 52 fires just since December. Malfunctioning electronic cigarettes, meanwhile, have caused dozens of people to suffer serious burns and disfigurement, and to lose teeth and even fingers.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission jumped immediately into action on problem hoverboards, declaring the products an unreasonable fire risk and warning manufacturers to adopt safety standards or face seizures.

E-cigarettes are a different story, however. At the moment, federal regulators can do little more than shake their fists at faulty electronic cigarettes manufacturers, most of whom are in China. That's because e-cigarettes are considered tobacco products and thus fall under the authority of the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA sent a final draft of e-cigarette regulations to the White House's Office of Management and Budget for approval in October. And there the proposal sits while the fast-growing e-cigarette industry operates virtually unchecked.

Though e-cigarette ignitions are rare relative to the more than 2.5 million Americans who use them, reports of fires and injuries caused by unexpected flare-ups are rising. A U.S. Fire Administration study found 25 reports of e-cigarette explosions between 2009 and August 2014. So far this year there's been a story practically every day about a faulty device blowing up.

Regulations would help stop injuries before they happen by giving the FDA the authority to require the devices to meet federal safety standards. Among other things, the rules could also impose the same age restrictions as apply to conventional cigarettes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen use of e-cigarettes tripled among middle and high school students from 2013 to 2014.

While researchers haven't settled the question of whether vaping is as harmful as smoking, we do know e-cigarette users don't breathe in the same kind of carcinogenic smoke and tar that conventional cigarette smokers do. That's good, but no matter how you package it, nicotine is an addictive chemical linked to cardiovascular disease.

Neither the risk of explosion nor concerns about long-term health effects of e-cigarettes have put a damper on their growing popularity. That makes it all the more imperative to have regulations as soon as possible.