- - Thursday, October 31, 2013

The questions concerning the safety of electronic cigarette use are neatly matched by the questions concerning how — and even whether — governments should regulate the product.

Having long strictly limited marketing and use of traditional tobacco products, the Food and Drug Administration is expected in the coming days to propose its first rules and restrictions on electronic cigarettes.

About half of the states, including Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota and New Hampshire, haven’t waited for federal action and have banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. A group of 41 state attorneys general wrote to the FDA urging the federal government to “take all available measures” to regulate the product.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has said that federal regulations that prohibit smoking on airplanes will be extended to e-cigarettes.

But the industry is arguing that e-cigarettes are fundamentally different from traditional cigarettes and shouldn’t face the same one-size-fits-all restrictions. Some companies go further, saying e-cigarettes can lower smoking rates for more dangerous tobacco products and should, in certain circumstances, be encouraged.

Critics say that when it comes to regulation — and, just as important, taxation — the booming e-cigarette industry is trying to have it both ways as the government considers its regulatory approach.

“When it’s convenient to be like tobacco, they’re like tobacco,” Stanton A. Glantz, director of the University of California-San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, recently told The New York Times. “And when it’s not convenient, they’re not.”

The regulatory mishmash is not limited to the United States.

In Germany, Norway, Ireland, Poland and Portugal, the sale and use of electronic cigarettes is completely legal. In a closely watched vote last month, the European Parliament decided to regulate e-cigarette marketing the same as regular tobacco products, forbidding sales to minors and most advertisements in the economic bloc.

But EU legislators rejected a proposal to regulate e-cigarettes with the same stringency as medical devices, which would have put a major crimp in a product that is gaining increasing popularity in markets such as France. If the measure passed, e-cigarettes could have been sold only in pharmacies.

Charles Hamshaw-Thomas, spokesman for E-Lites, Britain’s biggest e-cigarette seller, called the Parliament’s vote a “fantastic result for public health and the millions of smokers around Europe who are switching to e-cigarettes.”

“Common sense,” he added, “has prevailed.”

In Britain, e-cigarettes are not subject to the same use, sale and advertising regulations as traditional tobacco products. Three e-cigarette commercials, however, were aired by E-Lites, and its rivals were banned last month.

The Canadian government has stated that officials do not endorse e-cigarettes but that the sale and use of the product are legal. South Korea also has deemed e-cigarettes legal, but the government has imposed heavy taxes on e-cigarettes to discourage use, particularly among teenagers.

Switzerland has adopted a split approach: While nicotine-free e-cigarettes are legal nationwide, e-cigarettes containing nicotine cannot be sold within the country. They can, however, be imported.

Dubai, Lebanon, Mexico, Panama and Singapore are among the many countries that have adopted outright bans on the e-cigarette use.

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