Electronic, or e-cigarettes, are battery-operated devices that generally contain cartridges filled with nicotine, flavor and carrier chemicals. The contents of the cartridge are heated to a vapor, which the user inhales.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided in April not to challenge a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that e-cigarettes are not drugs or devices unless marketed as such, but can be regulated as tobacco products. That means the devices aren’t subject to the testing requirements of pharmaceuticals.
The FDA has done no formal, large-scale tests on the products, but did release a statement in 2009 saying it had analyzed the ingredients in a small sample of cartridges from two leading brands.
The analysis detected diethylene glycol in one sample – a chemical used in antifreeze that is considered toxic to humans – and detectable levels of carcinogens in several others.
“Because these products have not been submitted to the FDA for evaluation or approval, at this time the agency has no way of knowing, except for the limited testing it has performed, the levels of nicotine or the amounts or kinds of other chemicals that the various brands of these products deliver to the user,” the statement says.
The Electronic Cigarette Association, a group of private companies involved in the production and sale of the product, disputes the finding, saying in a statement on its website that the FDA’s analysis is “too narrow to reach any valid and reliable conclusions” and ignores efforts by member companies to ensure the products include health warnings and are marketed only as an alternative to smoking by current tobacco users over 18.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco smoke from regular cigarettes contains more than 7,000 chemicals and chemical compounds, including more than 70 that are known carcinogens.