Reggae music poured from the speakers Thursday afternoon inside the DC Vape Joint, a basement shop that opened last month in Adams Morgan. Display cases held dozens of electronic cigarettes and a seemingly endless array of nicotine liquids, in far-flung flavors such as Mojito and Moon Pie, Swedish Fish and Scooby Snacks.
On a nearby couch, shop co-owner Erik Miller and store manager Ryan Bixby took drags off their own e-cigarettes, filling the tiny space with apple- and vanilla-scented vapors. They hardly sounded troubled by Thursday’s announcement that the Food and Drug Administration intends to start regulating the rapidly expanding e-cigarette market.
“We’re excited,” said Bixby, 30. “With regulation comes standardization. The quality is going to improve.”
If approved, the FDA’s proposal would quickly put curbs on sales to minors, require health warning labels and disclosure of ingredients, and prohibit manufacturers from making unverified health-related claims — ideas that most e-cigarette producers and retailers say they embrace.
What comes after that might prove far more delicate and divisive.
For now, the FDA isn’t seeking to halt online sales of e-cigarettes, forbid television advertising, or ban the dizzying array of flavorings, from mango to margarita to mocha, which tobacco control advocates say are aimed at luring young smokers and which have been banned in traditional cigarettes. Those rules eventually could come, FDA officials say, but only after there is a scientific basis for broader regulations.
The FDA’s long-awaited move to begin regulating e-cigarettes — as well as cigars, pipe tobacco, hookah tobacco and other products — drew swift and mixed reactions Thursday from public health officials, consumer advocates and manufacturers. But almost everyone agreed that the details of how the agency eventually regulates the rapidly evolving, $2 billion-a-year e-cigarette industry will shape it dramatically and could have profound effects on public health.
The public has 75 days to comment on the FDA’s proposal, and manufacturers will have two years after the current rules are finalized to submit applications to the FDA to approve their products, which can remain on the market in the meantime.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called Thursday’s action an important step but said that it is “inexcusable” that the FDA had taken years to act. He said the agency must move quickly to conduct the research it will need to crack down on the flavorings and marketing aimed at minors.
“They can’t move forward at the same pace that they have been moving and do their job protecting public health,” Myers said. “We can’t waste another five years; this cannot take that long. There is a moral and public health imperative for them to treat this with the urgency it deserves.”
Some industry advocates worry that federal regulation will benefit only a handful of large e-cigarette companies that have the money and staffing needed to file the mountain of paperwork required to seek FDA approval for every e-cigarette product.
“This is worse than I expected,” said Greg Conley, a board member of the American Vaping Association, who had hoped that the FDA would grandfather in existing products, rather than force e-cigarette makers to file lengthy applications for any product on the market dating to early 2007. “A lot of these companies, they are supporting several employees, investing any profits back into their business. . . . They can’t afford this, and it’s going to lead to a whole lot of consolidation and increased prices for consumers.”
Not everyone agrees. Some of the largest players in the e-cigarette market praised the FDA for committing to a science-based decision-making process, which they hope will allow them to make a case that e-cigarettes have the potential to reduce tobacco-related harm.
“What they did today was very encouraging,” said Miguel Martin, president of Logic Technology Development, one of the nation’s leading e-cigarette companies. “At least speaking for my company, this will not be the tobacco wars of the ’80s and ’90s.”
The market for e-cigarettes — battery-powered devices that heat up a liquid and deliver nicotine-laced vapor to users — still pales in comparison to the $80 billion in annual tobacco sales, but that gap is narrowing, and some analysts think e-cigarettes could eclipse conventional cigarettes in popularity within a decade.
The FDA’s move comes at a time when many questions remain about whether e-cigarettes actually help people kick the smoking habit or put more people on a path toward smoking. It comes as cities and states are putting in place public bans on e-cigarettes over the objections of advocates who say they should be embraced as a welcome replacement to toxic, burning tobacco.
As the federal government enters the fray, it faces a balancing act of setting sensible restrictions that will ensure safe products while restricting access to minors, but won’t crush an industry that has the potential to reduce the number of tobacco smokers in America. In the end, the FDA insists, the data will dictate which direction regulators take.
That’s fine by Jason Healy, founder and president of blu eCigs, which was acquired by Lorillard in 2012. “It will move from theory and conjecture and gut feelings to a science-based regulatory framework,” Healy said. “Both sides have to now be accountable for their statements. You’re going to have to put science behind it.”
However that pans out, he said, it’s likely to be good for customers visiting the vape shop in Adams Morgan, and thousands of others like it around the country. “There’s been so much uncertainty,” Healy said. “Now, everyone will know where we stand.”