Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nearly five years after gaining the authority to regulate electronic cigarettes, the Food and Drug Administration has finally exercised it. It should ignore the vapescreen of objections from the industry and proceed as quickly as possible with its plan to outlaw their sale to children under 18 and require manufacturers to say exactly what's in the things and how they work.

Smoking, E-Updated

The FDA's proposal is an essential first step, but it's impossible not to be impatient for more. Putting the rules into effect is expected to take at least a year, and even then certain safeguards that are crucial to preventing e-cigarette use by children will still need to be written. These include bans on candy flavorings in the nicotine concoctions that e-cigarettes vaporize and prohibiting television advertising and sponsorship of music festivals and other events that kids are likely to attend.

Most immediately, the FDA needs to stand firm against e-cigarette makers' continuing efforts to delay the proposed rules. The companies argue that too much regulation too soon will "stifle innovation." What exactly "innovation" means in the context of e-cigarettes is unclear, though it's likely to involve new and more efficient ways to deliver nicotine. The theory is that this could make e-cigarettes work better as smoking-cessation tools -- but this theory is unproven.

Even if it were, there's no need for unfettered advertising and bubble-gum flavors, which feed a dangerous vaping fad among teenagers. In 2012, 10 percent of U.S. high school students tried e-cigarettes, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, double the number from the previous year. And surveys suggest vaping leads to regular smoking among teenagers.

The e-cigarette ads that have been created so far look familiar to anyone who remembers ads for regular cigarettes, which have been banned from TV and radio for 45 years. They use images that blatantly appeal to teenagers. Instead of discouraging tobacco use, they present e-cigarettes as a kind of gateway vice, safer than cigarettes but just as subversive. In doing so, they undermine the progress that has been made in stigmatizing cigarettes for children and adults alike.

The FDA should not worry too much that regulating the U.S. e-cigarette industry will stifle a growing market; sales are expected to double this year to $3 billion. The concern should be for sensible rules against marketing to teenagers, and how to prevent the cultivation of a new generation of smokers.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.