A new Congressional report released Monday sounds the alarm on marketing of electronic cigarettes, especially efforts made by companies to sell their products to young people.
The report, written by the staff of Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, California Rep. Henry Waxman and other lawmakers, underscores the need to regulate the fast-growing industry, including the lack of uniform age restrictions and warning labels.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution and create vapor that's inhaled.
While the Food and Drug Administration plans to set marketing and product regulations for electronic cigarettes in the near future, for now, almost anything goes. A 2009 law gave the FDA the power to regulate a number of aspects of tobacco marketing and manufacturing, though it cannot ban nicotine or cigarettes outright.
The agency first said it planned to assert authority over e-cigarettes in 2011 but hasn't yet. The proposed FDA regulation was submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review in October.
"I can't understand why the FDA is taking this long," Durbin said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It is clear that the longer they wait, the more young people will be addicted."
Though the FDA has been slow to regulate electronic cigarettes, the agency has taken measures to bring to light the dangers posed by the devices. Last month the FDA released a report that found e-cigarettes liquids are behind a growing number phone calls made to poison control centers throughout the country.
The new Congressional report follows an investigation launched by the congressional delegation in September into the practices of nine e-cigarette makers. The staffs surveyed the companies for information on their marketing practices, steps taken to restrict sales to minors, types of warning labels and touting claims of health benefits or reduced exposure to potentially harmful or addictive substances.
Among the findings, the report says six of the companies surveyed spent more than $59 million on advertising and promotion of their e-cigarettes in 2013. Several of the companies reported that their marketing spending more than doubled between 2012 and 2013, and two of the companies' marketing expenses increased more than 300 percent during that time. Sales of e-cigarettes, which are sold under more than 200 brand names, are estimated to have reached nearly $2 billion in 2013.
The report also observes companies have specifically chosen marketing strategies that appeal to teenagers. In particular, makers of e-cigarettes use social media to connect with younger consumers. Seven of the companies surveyed by the authors use websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram. In many cases it's not possible for companies to limit access on social media sites, which means their marketing message is more likely to reach young people.
Durbin said that if the FDA "accepts responsibility for this product as they have for tobacco," it can start establishing standards for sales and marketing.
"If they fail to do that, I'm afraid it's going to continue reach into the ranks of our children," he said.