Public health and tobacco industry officials passionately discussed the potential benefits and risks of expanded e-cigarette use Wednesday during a joint legislative hearing at the state Capitol.
Electronic cigarettes, commonly referred to as e-cigarettes, are devices that simulate smoking and satisfy some of the same cravings in consumers. They work by using a heating element to vaporize a liquid solution that normally includes nicotine.
While speakers disagreed on many things, they agreed on one: E-cigarette sales should be prohibited to minors.
Dr. Joel Nitzkin, a public health physician and senior fellow in tobacco policy for the R Street Institute, argued that getting people to switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes has great potential to save lives.
R Street is a nonprofit public policy research organization that supports free markets. It receives some funding from at least one tobacco company, Nitzkin acknowledged.
While both cigarettes and e-cigarettes normally contain the addictive chemical nicotine, “it is the toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke, when inhaled deeply into the lungs, that kills people,” Nitzkin said.
Nitzkin contended people can lower their risk of obtaining potentially fatal tobacco-attributable illnesses by more than 98 percent by switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes.
Such a reduction would be important because the U.S. Surgeon General has estimated that tobacco will cause about 480,000 deaths this year in the United States.
“Is it likely or is it possible that we'll find out 15 or 20 years from now that there was some unintended adverse effect … (caused by e-cigarette use)?” he asked. “We cannot guarantee that will not happen, but from everything we know, it seems exceedingly unlikely.”
Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, urged caution.
“I'm not here to tell you that electronic cigarettes are good. I'm not here to tell you that electronic cigarettes are bad. I'm here to tell you, we don't know,” he said.
Lichtenfeld said big tobacco companies have gotten into the production of e-cigarettes because it is a “fundamental nicotine addicting product to get new customers.”
Lichtenfeld said researchers have not had adequate time to study the extent to which e-cigarettes are harmful to health. Nor have they had time to adequately study whether increased use of e-cigarettes would make cigarette use once again more acceptable to the public, he said.
“We need to be sure, because we run the risk of backtracking to where we were in the past,” Lichtenfeld said. “Until we know for sure, we should not change what we know works.
Terry Cline, Gov. Mary Fallin's secretary of Health and Human Services, agreed with Lichtenfeld that the research is still unclear about the potential risks and benefits of e-cigarettes.
Cline said he is deeply concerned because surveys are showing increased e-cigarette use among high school and middle school students.
Lorillard is among the tobacco companies that have entered the e-cigarette industry.
Michael Shannon, Lorillard's vice president of external affairs and associate general counsel, said company officials believe persuading people to switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes would improve public health. He advocated encouraging people to switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes by either not applying excise taxes to e-cigarettes or taxing them at a much lower rate than cigarettes.
The tobacco representative and public health officials were in agreement on one thing: e-cigarettes are not for children.
They all advocated legislation banning sale of e-cigarettes to children under 18, and Nitzkin said he would even favor raising the age to 21.
Cline said the Oklahoma Department of Health is backing a bill by state Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, that would prohibit e-cigarette sales to minors.