Although they have been sold by the millions online and even in hospital shopping centers, touted as a safe way to "smoke" without suffering tobacco's deadly consequences, the US Food and Drug Administration has issued a health warning against "electronic cigarettes."
The FDA announced last Wednesday that a laboratory analysis of e-cigarette samples has found they contain traces of carcinogens and toxic chemicals such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient used in antifreeze.
Electronic cigarettes are expensive electronic devices containing cartridges filled with nicotine, flavoring and other chemicals. The electronic cigarette turns nicotine, which is highly addictive, and other chemicals into a vapor that is inhaled by the user. Unlike tobacco smoke, this vapor does not cause harm to people in the vicinity.
E-cigarettes do not contain any health warnings in Israel or anywhere abroad comparable to those on FDA-approved nicotine replacement products or conventional cigarettes. They are also available in different flavors, such as chocolate and mint, which may appeal to young people.
Asked to comment on the FDA statement, the Health Ministry in Jerusalem said it and the Justice Ministry are examining the evidence, but that there is no law prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes or their use in public places.
US public health experts expressed concern that electronic cigarettes could increase nicotine addiction and tobacco use in young people.
"The FDA is concerned about the safety of these products and how they are marketed to the public," said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, its commissioner of food and drugs.
"Because these products have not been submitted to the FDA for evaluation or approval, at this time the agency has no way of knowing - except for the limited testing it has performed - the levels of nicotine or the amounts or kinds of other chemicals that the various brands of these products deliver to the user," she said.
But the FDA's pharmaceutical analysis division analyzed the ingredients in a small sample of cartridges from two leading brands of electronic cigarettes. In one sample, it detected diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze that is toxic to humans, and in several other samples, carcinogens - including nitrosamines - were found.
These tests indicate that these products contained detectable levels of known carcinogens and toxic chemicals to which users could potentially be exposed, the FDA said.
The FDA has been examining and detaining shipments of e-cigarettes at the border and the products it has examined thus far meet the definition of a combination drug-device product under the US Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The agency is also planning additional activities to address its concerns about these products.
The FDA has been challenged regarding its jurisdiction over certain e-cigarettes in a case pending in federal district court.