Long-awaited federal rules to keep electronic cigarettes out of the hands of children finally arrived Thursday, and not a moment too soon. Use of the nicotine delivery devices has been growing rapidly among middle- and high-school-aged teens in the last few years.
The rules, in the works since 2010, put the regulation of all tobacco products — including "novel and future" ones — under the authority of the Food and Drug Administration for the first time. This is a profoundly important step in reining in e-cigarettes, a popular product with unknown long-term health effects that has been virtually unsupervised by government until now.
Now, manufacturers will be required to disclose the ingredients in the liquid nicotine used in "vaping" and allow government review of how the devices are made before they can be sold to adults in the United States.
Currently, anything could be lurking inside that liquid. And that isn't the only reason why children shouldn't be using electronic cigarettes. Even without the carcinogenic tar and smoke of regular cigarettes, e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, an addictive substance linked to heart disease. Adults should be wary as well. Dangerous chemicals have been found in the electronic cigarette "juice," such as a Diacetyl, a flavoring associated with lung illness.
The devices themselves also can pose a threat to consumers, many of whom have been injured and disfigured in a spate of explosions. The battery-operated devices heat liquid nicotine into a mist that is inhaled. But neither the liquid nor the devices, most of which are made in China, must comply with any sort of safety standards.
In a separate development, California lawmakers passed new rules this week further limiting tobacco use in the state. But they went too far in raising the legal age for cigarettes and electronic cigarettes from 18 to 21. While it's reasonable to keep nicotine products out of the hands of minors, limiting their use by legal adults is an overreach. Gov. Jerry Brown fortunately vetoed one of the most onerous parts of the package that would have allowed counties to set their own tobacco taxes. That might have interfered with a $2-per-pack state excise tax likely to be proposed on the November ballot.
The federal rules announced Thursday include other controls on tobacco products — including e-cigarettes — such as not allowing them to be sold in vending machines and requiring warning labels. The government chose not to prohibit the use of flavors in liquid nicotine such as "Peanut Butter Cup" and "Candy Crash" that seem clearly aimed at appealing to young users, but the age limits should get at that.
It's possible that research may conclude one day that vaping is significantly safer than smoking traditional cigarettes. That's an argument, perhaps, for adult use, but the fear with children is that they'll start with vaping first and move on to smoking. These laws are designed to discourage that.