A group of Democratic senators have called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the marketing practices of electronic cigarettes, suggesting the industry may be targeting their products to children and teens.
The senators -- Barbara Boxer of California, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Edward Markey of Massachusetts -- also asked the FTC to pursue enforcement action against companies that make false or misleading health claims in their advertising.
"While public health experts learn more about the health and safety implications of e-cigarettes, it would be beneficial to disseminate to the public information about the marketing of these products and to investigate companies that conduct false, deceptive, or misleading advertising and hold them responsible to the full extent of the law," said the six senators in a letter Wednesday to FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
The electronic cigarette industry is booming, with sales doubling annually since 2008 and revenue expected to reach at least $1.5 billion this year.
But the Food and Drug Administration, concerned that children and teens have easy access to the battery-powered inhalers, is considering strict new rules that would treat the nicotine inhalers in much the same way as traditional cigarettes.
Federal law prohibits the sale of tobacco cigarettes to anyone under 18, but there is no such restriction for e-cigarettes. And with no advertising restrictions and the products coming in an array of flavors such as bubble gum, strawberry and chocolate, critics say the devices increasingly are becoming popular with teens and children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September released a report showing e-cigarette use doubled among U.S. middle and high school students in 2011-12, resulting in an estimated 1.78 million students using the devices. The study also suggested that for many young people, e-cigarettes could be a gateway to smoking conventional cigarettes.
"Given the unknown health implications of electronic cigarettes, the possibility that they may act as a supplemental source of nicotine for current smokers and therefore drive addiction, and the potential risk that they may lead young people to try other tobacco products (including conventional cigarettes), it is important to know more about e-cigarette manufacturers’ marketing and advertising practices to ensure youth are not targeted," the senators wrote.
Most researchers say e-cigarettes are safer than traditional cigarettes because tobacco isn't ingested into the lungs and they don't produce second-hand smoke, though few studies have been conducted on their long-term health risks.
But the lawmakers say claims by e-cigarette companies that their products have therapeutic and health benefits — such as helping users of traditional cigarettes quit smoking — are unproven.