E-Cigarettes Sure Are Making a Lot of Health Claims

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Electronic nicotine delivery systems — e-cigs, vape pens, and so forth — are exploding in popularity right now. Widely seen as a healthier and less obnoxious alternative to smoking cigarettes, they’re advertised everywhere.

But what sorts of information are those ads conveying? As it turns out, we’re in something of a limbo phase in terms of the Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate claims made by manufacturers and retailers of electronic nicotine-delivery systems, or ENDS. As of August 2016, the FDA will be able to regulate them in certain ways, but at the moment ENDS companies have a lot of leeway in this regard.

In a new paper in the journal Tobacco Regulatory Science, a team led by Elizabeth G. Klein, an associate professor at The Ohio State University College of Public Health, sought to learn more about the sorts of claims being made. They conducted a series of internet searches for the terms e-cigarettes, e-cigs, e-juice, e-liquid, e-hookah, and vape pen and then evaluated what they found.

It turns out that ENDS manufacturers are making a lot of health claims about the benefits of their devices, particularly claims contrasting them with traditional cigarettes. Some 70.5 percent of the search results from manufacturers claimed the devices were less risky than traditional cigarettes, for example, while 43.6 percent claimed they would help users quit traditional cigarettes. (Retailers were making a lot of these claims, too, though the numbers weren’t as high — 46.9 percent and 15.44 percent for “modified risk” and “cessation” claims, respectively.)

As of August, the FDA will be regulating these claims, and like other health claims under the agency’s purview they will be “prohibited without prior review and authorization by the FDA.” Therefore, “[a]ssuming that manufacturers and retailers comply with the law, this suggests that the FDA is likely to be inundated with applications for modified risk claims from ENDS companies.” And while the authors of this study didn’t evaluate the claims they encountered for scientific accuracy, “it is apparent that several of the claims being made — including both modified risk claims and cessation claims — may violate” FDA regulations. As one example of a potentially concerning type of ad, the authors note that “some websites claim that the emissions from ENDS are “simply … water vapor” (Manufacturer: E Cigs Brand), even though numerous studies have shown that there are small amounts of concerning toxicants found in the emissions from ENDS.”

All of which is to say: Things are probably about to get busy for the FDA on the e-cig front.