By Tim Devaney - 05/15/14 05:04 PM EDT
Electronic cigarettes present a “regulatory black hole” difficult for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to navigate, Sen. Tom Harkin said Thursday.
Harkin (D-Iowa) made the comment at the first congressional hearing to examine e-cigarettes, which he criticized as dangerous for children.
Washington is grappling with how to handle the new devices, which simulate smoking by vaporizing solutions, some of which include nicotine, that emit a vapor rather than smoke.
The health risks of the product are not clear, but the FDA proposed regulating e-cigarettes last month.
The new rules would ban sales of e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18, but Harkin said they do not go far enough to protect children. He is upset that the rules would not ban flavored e-cigarettes, because he believes they are marketed to children, who could try to obtain the products illegally.
Harkin accused tobacco companies of subtly marketing e-cigarettes to children with flavors such as cotton candy, gummy bear, rocket pop, strawberry and cherry crush. He said marketers also use cartoons to reach children through video games and social media.
Harkin and other Democrats have expressed concerns that e-cigarettes could attract new smokers and serve as a gateway to traditional cigarettes. They also say the advent of e-cigarettes could convince people who were thinking about quitting altogether to continue smoking with these products, because they believe they are healthier.
But the FDA admits that e-cigarettes also have the “potential to do good” by weening smokers off of traditional cigarettes.
“If we could get all of those people to switch all of their cigarettes to these products, that would be good for public health,” Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, said at the hearing.
“They have the potential to do good, and they have the potential to do harm,” he added.
Meanwhile, Republicans urged caution as the FDA considers how to regulate e-cigarettes.
“What I would like to understand is what research have we done to answer those questions,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the ranking Republican on the committee. “There are reports from countries overseas that some of these new products do not seem to be a gateway to traditional cigarette use. But we don't know that. We don't know that yet.”