Nonfoods Talk: Regulating e-cig sales

Stricter rules governing e-cigs sales may benefit the category in the long run.

It is time to tackle the white elephant in the room. SethNEW10-10

After months—maybe years—of rumors that the Food and Drug Administration would act against electronic-cigarette companies, in late April the federal agency finally released its proposed new rules, which includes extending its regulatory authority over the segment.

Basically, the rules would ban the sale of e-cigarettes to consumers under the age of 18 and require that consumers show photo identification to prove their age. Once finalized, the FDA will gain oversight of the e-cigarette market, as well as the cigar and pipe tobacco segments, and allow the agency to set guidelines for the amount of products and types of products that can be contained in each e-cig vial. The rules will not take effect for at least another year and, according to an article in The New York Times, perhaps much longer if companies sue to block their implementation.

Lets be clear here. A number of e-cigarette companies trying to gain a foothold in the grocery industry advertise in Grocery Headquarters magazine. My guess is that they do so to build awareness of the category, which is growing at a rapid rate, and to help their own brands gain name recognition at a time when the fledgling market is still in a state of flux and consumers try to figure out brand loyalties.

There is a battle going on between more than a dozen brands to gain retail acceptance at the front-end checkouts, where placement can mean the difference between success and failure for many players in the market.

Let’s also state for the record that e-cigarettes should have a place on open store shelves at retailers across the country. Unlike traditional cigarettes, e-cigs do not contain burning tobacco and the nasty chemicals that come with it that can produce carcinogens. While they might not be the healthiest products on the market, it appears that they are simply much better than smoking traditional cigarettes. A different New York Times article from the one previously mentioned cited a study in England that reported smokers trying to quit were more likely to succeed using e-cigs then over-the-counter therapies such as nicotine patches or gum.

“This will not settle the e-cigarette issue by any means,” said Thomas J. Glynn, a researcher at the American Cancer Society, in the article, “but it is further evidence that, in a real-world context, e-cigarettes can be a useful, although not revolutionary, tool in helping some smokers to stop.”

For no other reasons than these, e-cigs should be available to the general public, or at least those over the age of 18.

That said, I welcome limited FDA intervention and I believe that in short order the entire e-cigarette industry will be better off with government actions that help regulate the category, especially the ingredients that go into making the products. The caveat is as long as the FDA does not go too far and start mandating restrictions on where e-cigs can be sold within a store.

Without this regulation, anyone can enter the marketplace with any type of product. Left alone, even as most companies are responsible citizens, some may look to cut corners and produce inferior products that can only hurt the entire marketplace. Official government scrutiny can largely reduce the chances of this taking place.

The next year or so will be very interesting time for the category as e-cig companies and their lobbying groups in Washington tackle the federal government in hearings and, most probably, in federal court.

For now, retailers need to sit back and watch the proceedings. They should also keep merchandising e-cigs; a category that should be noted is super hot and enormously profitable for all involved. In the end, e-cigs products should be available on retail shelves and merchandised and marketed in responsible ways.

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