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Are e-cigarettes dangerous?

By Harold P. Wimmer
January 7, 2014 -- Updated 2045 GMT (0445 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Harold Wimmer: New York City was right to ban the use of e-cigarettes indoors
  • Wimmer: Industry has free rein to promote e-cigarettes as "safe" without proof
  • Report shows that e-cigarettes are reaching our children with alarming success, he says
  • Wimmer: The FDA should regulate e-cigarettes and find out what chemicals they contain

Editor's note: Harold P. Wimmer is the president and CEO of the American Lung Association.

(CNN) -- For the makers of electronic cigarettes, today we are living in the Wild West -- a lawless frontier where they can say or do whatever they want, no matter what the consequences. They are free to make unsubstantiated therapeutic claims and include myriad chemicals and additives in e-cigarettes.

Big Tobacco desperately needs new nicotine addicts and is up to its old tricks to make sure it gets them. E-cigarettes are being aggressively marketed to children with flavors like Bazooka Bubble Gum, Cap'n Crunch and Cotton Candy. Joe Camel was killed in the 1990s, but cartoon characters are back promoting e-cigarettes.

Many e-cigarettes look like Marlboro or Camel cigarettes. Like their old-Hollywood counterparts, glamorous and attractive celebrities are appearing on TV promoting specific e-cigarette brands. Free samples are even being handed out on street corners.

Harold P. Wimmer
Harold P. Wimmer

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the promotion of e-cigarettes is reaching our children with alarming success. In just one year, e-cigarette use doubled among high school and middle school students, and 1 in 10 high school students have used an e-cigarette. Altogether, 1.78 million middle and high school students nationwide use e-cigarettes.

The three largest cigarette companies are all selling e-cigarettes. Because tobacco use kills more than 400,000 people each year and thousands more successfully quit, the industry needs to attract and addict thousands of children each day, as well as keep adults dependent to maintain its huge profits.

Nicotine is a highly addictive substance, whether delivered in a conventional cigarette or their electronic counterparts. The potential harm from exposure to secondhand emissions from e-cigarettes is unknown. Two initial studies have found formaldehyde, benzene and tobacco-specific nitrosamines (a well-known carcinogen) coming from those secondhand emissions. We commend New York City recently for banning the use of e-cigarettes indoors.

Rise of the e-cigarette
Are e-cigarettes safe?

No e-cigarette has been approved by the FDA as a safe and effective product to help people quit smoking. Yet many companies are making claims that e-cigarettes help smokers quit. When smokers are ready to quit, they should call 1-800-QUIT NOW or talk with their doctors about using one of the seven FDA-approved medications proven to be safe and effective in helping smokers quit.

According to one study, there are 250 different e-cigarette brands for sale in the U.S. today. With so many brands, there is likely to be wide variation in the chemicals -- intended and unintended -- that each contain.

In 2009, lab tests conducted by the FDA found detectable levels of toxic cancer-causing chemicals -- including an ingredient used in anti-freeze -- in two leading brands of e-cigarettes and 18 various e-cigarette cartridges.

There is no safe form of tobacco. Right now, the public health and medical community or consumers have no way of knowing what chemicals are contained in an e-cigarette or what the short and long term health implications might be.

Commonsense regulation of e-cigarettes by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is urgently needed. In the absence of meaningful oversight, the tobacco industry has free rein to promote their products as "safe" without any proof.

A proposal to regulate e-cigarettes and other tobacco products has been under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget since October 1, 2013. The Obama administration must move forward with these rules to protect the health of everyone, especially our children.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Harold P. Wimmer.

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