Editorial: We need FDA to determine e-cigarette risks

The federal government is finally moving to regulate e-cigarettes.

That’s good news for consumers. Right now they have no way of knowing what risks the electronic nicotine-delivery devices pose for users and those who inhale secondhand vapors. That has to change.

The Food and Drug Administration already regulates conventional cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco and smokeless tobacco. The rule it proposed Thursday would allow the FDA to exercise the authority Congress gave it in 2009 to extend tobacco regulation to e-cigarettes, as well as to cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels and water-pipe tobacco used in hookahs. It’s long overdue. Once the rule is finalized, those products could no longer be sold in vending machines or to people younger than 18. And their packages would have to include health warnings. Those are welcome steps. But it could be a year or more before the rule takes effect.

And the FDA has yet to answer the most critical question for consumers: Do e-cigarettes pose health risks ?

The agency is sponsoring studies in search of answers. And it wants to require e-cigarette producers to help by disclosing scientific data, manufacturing processes, and product ingredients, including flavorings, and by opening their plants to FDA inspectors.

Still, it could take a few years before consumers learn what risks they’re braving by dragging on e-cigs. The FDA should move quickly. The public needs answers on the products produced by a multibillion-dollar industry that right now is completely unregulated.

Tobacco poses unique problems for the FDA. The traditional “safe and effective” standard it uses to evaluate medical products doesn’t apply. Tobacco products are known to be deadly. But they’re widely used by consumers and the FDA has no authority to ban them. So products such as e-cigarettes are regulated based on a public health standard that balances risks and benefits — for instance, whether they cause users to start smoking conventional cigarettes, or more often help smokers quit.

Despite the information vacuum, e-cigarettes are sweeping the country. The FDA needs to catch up.