A customer fills an e-cigarette at a shop in California. The Food and Drug Administration plans to begin regulating such products, whose use is already controlled in many countries. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While at least 55 countries have prohibited or restricted the sale of e-cigarettes, they have remained largely unregulated in the United States. That is slated to change this year, as the Food and Drug Administration plans to begin regulating “vaporized nicotine products,” or VNPs —by taking such steps as preventing manufacturers from luring kids with edgy ads or flavored e-cigs.

But seven prominent tobacco experts writing in Addiction, a journal of the Society for the Study of Addiction, are trying to get ahead of the rules, urging regulators to keep a more open mind and take a restrained approach to e-cig regulation.

The lengthy article — labeled “For Debate” — was written by top researchers from five universities in the United States, Canada and Australia, plus the Truth Initiative (the tobacco-control nonprofit formerly called the American Legacy Foundation).

They present a detailed analysis of who uses e-cigs, how people start using e-cigs and how long they do it, along with a framework for using such data to carefully structure targeted legislation. The tone is measured and cautious: “The evidence suggests a strong potential for VNP use to improve population health by reducing or displacing cigarette use in countries where cigarette prevalence is high and smokers are interested in quitting” is about as strong as the article gets.

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But the lead author, David. T. Levy of the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, spoke more directly about vaping in a university press release.

“We believe that the discussion to date has been slanted against e-cigarettes,” Levy says in a press release about the journal piece.

“We’re concerned the FDA, which has asserted its right to regulate e-cigarettes, will focus solely on the possibility that e-cigarettes and other vapor nicotine products might act as a gateway to cigarette use,” Levy says.

This is unfortunate, he continues, because “these products appear to be used mostly by people who already are or who are likely to become cigarette smokers.”

Several days after the Addiction article appeared online, a major British medical organization chimed in: The Royal College of Physicians issued a paper that said, “Large-scale substitution of e-cigarettes, or other non-tobacco nicotine products, for tobacco smoking has the potential to prevent almost all the harm from smoking in society.”