In one of his last acts as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg signed a bill prohibiting the indoor use of electronic cigarettes in the five boroughs. It was a fitting finale for a 12-year administration famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—for its focus on public-health issues, especially smoking. Bloomberg’s anti-smoking crusade included raising the legal purchasing age from 18 to 21, banning indoor and even some outdoor smoking (in parks and on beaches), and hiking the minimum cigarette price to $10.50 a pack. These efforts made him the bane of the tobacco industry, whose opposition hasn’t lessened with his departure—in fact, it spent as much on lobbying in New York State in the first six months of 2013 as it expended in 2011 and 2012 combined, according to a February report by the New York Public Interest Research Group. Surely Bloomberg’s late move against e-cigarettes had something to do with that—and in fact, Big Tobacco has stepped up its lobbying efforts around the country to stave off regulation of this booming new market.
Though e-cigarettes make up only a fraction of the $100 billion tobacco market, sales of the battery-powered devices doubled in 2013, approaching $2 billion. Traditional tobacco industry players, such as Altria (formerly Philip Morris) have invested heavily in e-cigarettes, trotting out their own brands and buying up those of smaller, start-up manufacturers such as Green Smoke, Inc. Altria paid $110 million for Green Smoke in February, shortly before announcing it intends to expand its MarkTen e-cigarette brand with a major national push this year. The brand had previously been available only on a test basis in Indiana and Arizona. Lorillard, the third-largest U.S. tobacco company and the e-cigarette market leader, spent $2.35 million in 2013 on lobbying, according to the Washington Post. The FDA, the paper claims, has held at least a dozen meetings and “listening sessions” with e-cigarette industry representatives since 2012.
The e-cigarette phenomenon comes at a bad time for the anti-smoking movement, which has enjoyed decades of success in discouraging Americans from using tobacco products. Fifty years after the first Surgeon General’s report on the health effects of smoking, U.S. public health officials believe that we’re approaching “the end of cigarette smoking in America.” Fewer than 20 percent of Americans now smoke, and Surgeon General Boris D. Lushniak expects that figure to drop to 10 percent by 2020 and 5 percent by 2050. “We believe we have the public health tools to get us to the zero level,” he says.
The downward trend is undeniable—in 1973, 43 percent of Americans claimed to be smokers—but which “public health tools” will be most effective at getting to zero is not as clear. The Bloombergs of the world push prohibition; others champion e-cigarettes. First hitting the market in 2007, e-cigarettes have developed a fast reputation among smokers as a safe alternative to traditional tobacco products. Longtime smokers report that the devices have helped them quit the addictive habit.
The Food and Drug Administration has said that it intends to regulate e-cigarettes in the same way that it regulates tobacco products, but the devices actually don’t contain tobacco—only nicotine. An atomizer—often resembling a tobacco cigarette—heats a liquid containing nicotine and flavoring it until it turns into a vapor, which the user then inhales like a traditional cigarette. What is exhaled looks like smoke but quickly evaporates. Is it harmful? Not enough research has been done to know, the FDA says. But advocates are pushing lawmakers to treat e-cigarettes more leniently than they do traditional tobacco products. Some have gone so far as to suggest that insurance companies should give away e-cigarette starter kits—which can cost as much as $200—to smokers looking to wean themselves off regular cigarettes.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) note, though, that e-cigarette use among young people is rising rapidly. The percentage of middle- and high school students who have tried e-cigarettes leapt from 4.7 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2012. This dramatic increase has caught the attention of policymakers, who fret that e-cigarettes will become a stepping stone to traditional cigarettes. Senate Democrats have introduced a bill, the Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarette Advertising Act, to restrict promotion. The devices, also known as “vape pens” or “e-hookahs,” are easily purchased online without identification. Manufacturers have begun marketing “gourmet” and candy flavors—ranging from cotton candy and gummy bears to atomic fireball and pumpkin-spice chai tea—with obvious appeal to children and teenagers.
A public-policy battle over regulation of e-cigarettes looms. New Jersey, Utah, and North Dakota have adopted bans similar to New York’s. The Los Angeles City Council voted this week to treat e-cigarettes like conventional cigarettes and ban their use in parks and workplaces. In January, the Chicago City Council voted overwhelmingly to ban the indoor use of e-cigarettes. “Having worked with the FDA, having encouraged them to take steps to protect individuals and children, they are usually an agency that leads from behind,” said Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. “And when it comes to the city of Chicago, when it comes to the people of the city of Chicago, when it comes to the children of the city of Chicago, I do not believe we should wait.”
Bloomberg, Emanuel, and the sponsors of the Protecting Children from Electronic Cigarette Advertising Act say their opposition to e-cigarettes stems from a deep concern for public health. But critics suspect a less high-minded motivation: If e-cigarettes can be classified as tobacco products, then they can be taxed as tobacco products. According to the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, New York State raked in more than $12 billion in revenue from its highest-in-the-nation tobacco taxes between 2002 and 2011.
Whatever motivates the push to regulate e-cigarettes, it looks like the industry and its supporters will soon learn whether their candy-flavored dreams come true or go up in smoke.