For more than a decade, electronic cigarettes, the battery-powered, vapor-emitting alternatives to traditional tobacco products, were sold mostly free of federal government regulation. The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that will soon end.
The agency plans to begin regulating electronic cigarettes for the first time. Their new proposed guidelines would ban sales to minors and require health warnings on the nicotine-delivering devices.
Manufacturers would also be required to report their ingredients to the FDA for approval and all free samples and most vending machine sales would be banned.
"This proposed rule is the latest step in our efforts to make the next generation tobacco-free," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a press release.
The rules would stop short of banning advertising unless the products make health-related claims. Manufacturers will also be able to continue adding flavors to the devices, such as chocolate or watermelon, which opponents have argued might attract minors to the products.
E-cigarette models vary by brand, but their basic construction relies on battery-powered devices heating up a nicotine-filled liquid to produce a vapor. The user then "vapes" or inhales the vapor.
E-cigarettes aren't the only tobacco products to go under heightened FDA scrutiny. Cigars, pipe tobacco, hookahs (water pipes) and dissolvable tobacco products will also be restricted under the new proposed regulations.
Regulating e-cigarettes has proven to be tricky since health effects from inhaling the nicotine vapor remain largely unstudied. Supporters have argued that e-cigarettes can help those addicted to nicotine get their hit without the harmful effects of traditional smoking -- including exposure to tar and other carcinogens.
Opponents say that vaping will only lead more people to nicotine addiction and that the long-term health risks associated with e-cigarettes remain unknown. If not properly regulated, some have been especially concerned that young people will be more easily drawn into the habit.
In September 2013, the Centers for Disease Control released a study indicating that e-cigarettes could act as a gateway drug for young smokers to try traditional cigarettes. They reported that teen use of e-cigarettes had doubled over the previous year.
"The proposed rule would give the FDA additional tools to protect the public health in today's rapidly evolving tobacco marketplace, including the review of new tobacco products and their health-related claims," Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products said in a press release.