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Later today the Food and Drug Administration plans to make a big announcement about e-cigarettes. The agency will propose that it begin regulating smokeless devices just like traditional cigarettes. And we're going to talk about this with NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, who's in our studios.
Rob, good morning.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: You've got something in your hands there. What is it?
STEIN: That's right. I brought one of the see cigarettes with me. And, as you can see, it looks a lot like a cigarette holder. It looks like kind of a cross between and maybe a cigarettes and a pen.
INSKEEP: Yeah, like a heavy kind of pen.
INSKEEP: Like a fancy pen.
STEIN: Yeah, and that's what these things are. They're usually made out of plastic or metal. They're tubes. And what they are, they have a battery in them that heats up a chamber that contains a fluid that contains nicotine in it. And that creates a vapor that people can inhale and they blow out something that looks like smoke.
INSKEEP: We just remind people, nicotine is addictive substance in cigarettes. And so what you're getting here is the sensation of smoking and the nicotine without the actual smoke.
STEIN: Right, that's the idea. This gives people sort of their nicotine fix without the dangers of inhaling burning tobacco and inhaling smoke from the burnt tobacco, and all the dangerous chemicals that that includes.
INSKEEP: Sounds like a good idea, but it's been controversial, hasn't it?
STEIN: Yes, it's been hugely controversial. On the one hand, some people say, look, this is a really great thing. It's much, much less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. And it can prevent people from starting to smoke cigarettes. It might help smokers quit smoking. But on the other hand, there are other people who say hold on a minute. This could be really dangerous. It's starting to make smoking look cool again. It could hook a whole new generation on smoking. And it could make it actually harder for people to quit smoking.
INSKEEP: Does it make smoking seem cool again? I mean that's - it's like a fancy styling on the side of that. I'm sure you can do a lot of things you couldn't do with a paper cigarette.
STEIN: Yeah, it comes in all kinds of fancy colors and designs. And there's been a lot of really aggressive marketing on television with the celebrities hawking these things. And so there's a lot of concern that - and there are these vaping lounges that people can go to that have become really popular.
INSKEEP: Oh, and you said television. These can be advertised on TV in the way the traditional cigarettes cannot.
STEIN: Exactly, that's one of the many ways that these things are different than regular cigarettes, is they're advertising them on TV. You can buy them online. And these are all things that you can't do with regular tobacco cigarettes.
INSKEEP: OK, so the FDA is proposing to regulate them. What is it the Food and Drug Administration wants to do is?
STEIN: Well, basically the agency for the first time is asserting its authority over these devices. And that will do a whole bunch of things right away. Once - assuming this is a proposal, that's important to remember - but assuming this goes into effect, the things that will happen pretty much right away, most of them are aimed at preventing kids from using these things. Like it will ban sales of these devices to the minors. It would ban sales in vending machines in most places. You couldn't distribute free samples, which is appealing to kids. And it will require the manufacturers to disclose the ingredients in these things for the first time.
INSKEEP: Meaning we don't know what's in them.
STEIN: That's one of the big questions, we really don't know what is in that. And that's one of the questions about these devices is really how much safer are they. And what's in here that could be causing health problems that we are unaware of?
INSKEEP: OK, two quick questions. First, how is the industry responding to this move to regulate them?
STEIN: So far they seem pretty positive. They seem basically kind of relieved that the agency didn't go a lot farther than some people had hoped. And so so far they're saying that this could be, you know, a good thing to have some regulations to sort of bring the industry into some sort of compliance. On the other hand, the antismoking people, you know, they're saying this is a really good first step, but there's a lot of things they wish the agency had done, like ban marketing in television advertising. And also the flavorings - these things come in fruit flavors and all kinds of other flavors that they wish the agency would ban. And the agency says they might get to that, they're just not there yet.
INSKEEP: In a couple of seconds, is this a move towards regulations then that, according to antismoking activists, is actually favoring the industry 'cause they're doing so little?
STEIN: Well, that's what some people are saying, that they think this actually could help the industry consolidated itself and really establish itself as a thriving industry. But they think, well, at least they did this and maybe down the road the agency might do more tougher stuff.
INSKEEP: Rob, thanks for bringing that e-cigarette by.
STEIN: No problem.
INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Stein.
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