- - Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Oxford Dictionary declared “vape,” a verb meaning “to inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette,” the 2014 Word of the Year, and for good reason. Few new products have ever been discussed more than electronic cigarettes – or “e-cigs.”

Little doubt remains that vaping is safer than smoking traditional cigarettes. But significant questions remain about what’s inside many e-cigarettes and the health impacts of those ingredients.

The popularity of vaping has created a Wild West circumstance that is both exciting and, potentially, dangerous. New types of e-cigarettes are being produced and sold faster than available scientific data can be produced to measure the safety of the products. Government health agencies and regulators remain pathetically behind in their efforts to protect consumers from potential dangers associated with vaping.

This particularly libertarian moment in the marketplace has given producers of e-cigarettes and other vaping products the chance to produce their own standards and recommendations to assist consumers while government agencies struggle to catch up.

Last month, for example, British American Tobacco published what the Official Journal of the International Society for Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology called the “first practical guide to the safe use of flavorings in e-cigarettes.”

Altria and other e-cigarette producers put warning labels on vaping products, even though governments have not forced them to do so.

Governments are confounded about how to research and regulate e-cigarettes because they bear little resemblance to traditional light-and-smoke cigarettes filled with tobacco and various additives. Rather than burning tobacco, e-cigarettes heat a liquid, made up of water, glycerin and/or propylene glycol and often, though not always, flavorings and nicotine.

Flavorings and the compounds produced by heating them, which are inhaled by the user, have been the topic of much debate. Both their potential adverse effect on health and the need to set guidelines for their safe use are frequent fodder for discussion by both bureaucrats and public health professionals. There have been a number of studies conducted on the effects of inhaling vapor from e-cigarettes, but these invariably seem to focus on problems, such as lack of data, rather than solutions.

The flavorings typically used in e-cigarettes are food grade, which means that they have been traditionally ingested rather than inhaled. “This means that the data available is oral and there are large data gaps. Safe to eat is not the same as safe to inhale,” says Dr. Sandra Costigan, Principal Toxicologist at Nicoventures, a nicotine company established by British American Tobacco. “The data gaps need to be filled.”

Those data gaps aren’t being filled by government researchers and, since consumers must be confident that the e-cigarettes they purchase don’t pose unnecessary health risks, e-cigarette companies are employing researchers like Dr. Costigan.

Unlike governments, which have no skin in the game if they incorrectly or improperly rubberstamp an ingredient as safe when it isn’t, e-cigarette producers like British American Tobacco have everything to lose.

Not only could dangerous or unhealthy ingredients cost businesses customers, they may cost them billions of dollars in lawsuits and other penalties. As a result, big-name e-cigarette makers like British American have a greater incentive to research their products to ensure safety than any government ever would. It’s no wonder vaping advocates overwhelmingly rely on reputable companies rather than governments for reliable safety information concerning e-cigarettes.

Several governments are now beginning to look at developing standards for e-cigarettes. The British Standards Institute, for example, is developing product standards for e-cigarettes to provide guidance on manufacturing, testing and safety requirements. But even those standards are likely to be based on British American Tobacco’s flavorings guide, as well as other research produced by e-cigarette manufacturers as a result of consumers’ safety demands.

Government regulators may one day get a handle on the advancements made in the e-cigarette industry and demand certain standards and require warning labels on various products. But it’s likely that any government-required regulations will already be self-applied by most leading e-cigarette producers.

In reality, most e-cigarette industry standards imposed by governments will likely just mimic the sensible and responsible regulations industry leaders currently expect of themselves.

The burgeoning e-cigarette marketplace is proof that free markets and free people can regulate products better, quicker and more reasonably than government.

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