State should ban electronic cigarette sales to minors

There’s troubling evidence of slippage in the hard-fought gains to reduce tobacco sales to minors and to lower the percentage of teens who start smoking. It appears that electronic cigarettes play a key role in this shift, which state and federal regulators have been slow to address.

The data show that all 50 states and the District of Columbia continue to meet a national goal of limiting tobacco access to people younger than 18. Still, the average rate of retailer violations of selling tobacco to minors increased by more than a half-percent in the last year.

That doesn’t sound like much, but it warns of an alarming trend when coupled with a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 10 percent of high school students say they have tried electronic cigarettes. The percentage more than doubled from the previous year.

Electronic cigarettes heat a liquid that usually includes nicotine from tobacco leaves. It turns the liquid into a vapor that people inhale. The liquids are often flavored and can contain nicotine levels that far exceed those present in ordinary cigarettes, which could addict people more quickly and intensely.

Young people are especially susceptible because the inhaled vapors include candy-like flavors. The New York Times reports evidence that tobacco companies are targeting young people in marketing campaigns for electronic cigarettes.

The federal Food and Drug Administration announced last summer that it would take steps to regulate new forms of nicotine delivery, but has not yet put measures in place. It’s moving too slowly.

While the FDA dithers, the European Parliament recently enacted strict new rules about the use and sale of electronic cigarettes. These included a ban on advertising the devices and limiting the amount of nicotine to the level of traditional cigarettes.

The FDA should speed up its regulatory plans. It recently announced a $115 million anti-smoking campaign aimed at children, which could be a wasted effort unless it restricts tobacco companies from hooking minors on nicotine.

Electronic cigarettes may make some positive contribution to public health. Some users say the devices helped them quit smoking safely because they deliver nicotine without the tar and other toxic substances, not unlike nicotine chewing gum or body patches.

Washington could get out ahead of the FDA and join 26 other states that have banned the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. Rep. Sam Hunt is co-sponsoring HB 2795, which would include electronic cigarettes in the type of tobacco product retailers may not legally sell to minors.

It’s a good start toward filling a social policy vacuum created by federal inaction. It deserves strong bipartisan support and the governor’s signature.