RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Food and Drug Administration has this morning finally released its long-awaited plans to regulate electronic cigarettes. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now in the studio with details. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: Before we get into the regulations, can you just remind us what these things are?
STEIN: Yeah, you know, even if you've never tried one of these things, everyone's probably seen them.
STEIN: They look sort of like cigarettes, but instead of burning tobacco to produce smoke, what they do is they heat up a liquid that contains nicotine, and that produces a vapor that has nicotine in it that users inhale. That's why they call it vapor. And then - and that's how they get their nicotine fix. And these e-cigarettes have become really popular in the last few years, especially among younger people. But believe it or not, they're not regulated at all.
So it's been what one FDA official calls a kind of Wild Wild West when it comes to these things.
MARTIN: All right, so clearly this is something the FDA has wanted to do for a while. They're finally changing the rules. How are they going to regulate these?
STEIN: Yeah, so what the FDA announced today is that for the first time, they're basically going to be taking control of these things and requiring the companies that make them to do lots of things. And a lot of the things they're going to require are aimed at preventing these things from getting into the hands of kids. So for example, they're going to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone younger than 18.
MARTIN: And before, you could be like 15, 16 to buy these?
STEIN: That's right. Now, the companies that make these things have always been saying we don't think kids should be using them. But they could buy them. It wasn't illegal in a lot of places. And also, they're going to require that if you buy these things, you have to show an ID and prove how old you are, they're not going to let people sell them in vending machines, they're not going to let people give them away for free - all things that have been seen as ways of getting kids hooked on these things.
MARTIN: And this, I imagine, is controversial. I mean, I imagine tobacco companies aren't keen on the changes.
STEIN: Oh, yeah, a lot of this is really controversial. And the big thing the companies are worried about are that the FDA is also going to require that for the first time, they do things like disclose the ingredients that are in the vapor - this liquid that's heated up - so that users know what they're inhaling into their lungs.
MARTIN: And it's not that way now?
STEIN: No, no. And there's so many manufacturers that nobody really knows what's going into these things. And that way, researchers can also, for the first time, really study these things to see how safe or unsafe are they really? I mean, the assumption has been that they are probably - and they probably are safer than regular cigarettes - but since nobody really knew what was in them, nobody really knew for sure. And another big thing they're going to do is they're going to require eventually that all the companies that make them, submit their devices to the FDA so they can review them and approve them before they're allowed to be sold.
So that's going to require a lot of work by the companies to go through that formal FDA approval process.
MARTIN: These rule changes just came down today, but I imagine they've been anticipated for a while. What kind of response are these regulations likely to meet?
STEIN: Yeah, so as you can imagine, the companies are really upset about this. They're saying that this is a huge blow to their industry, and it could end up putting a lot of companies out of business, especially these smaller companies that were the first ones out there in the first place. And the concern is they're saying that, you know, look, this is - to comply with these regulations is a very difficult, long, costly process, and a lot of the smaller companies are just not going to be able to afford it. And they're going to end up going out of business.
And so people who use these devices - the number of devices that are available are going to be much more limited. And in the public health community, it's also mixed. They're glad the FDA is finally stepping in and regulating these things, but there's a big contingent to public health experts who think, well, you know, e-cigarettes are good 'cause they're helping people either quit smoking or maybe they're not - never start smoking regular cigarettes in the first time - in the first place.
MARTIN: Because aren't they slightly better than smoking a regular cigarette?
STEIN: That's the assumption, that it's safer to inhale this vapor than it is to inhale smoke.
MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein breaking down the new rules the FDA has put out about e-cigarettes. Thanks so much.
STEIN: Oh, sure. Nice to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.