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E-cig study finds labels often wrong

A salesperson demonstrates the use of an electronic cigarette and its smokelike vapor. (Associated Press)
A salesperson demonstrates the use of an electronic cigarette and its smokelike vapor. (Associated Press)

People buying e-cigarettes generally think they’re getting a product much safer than regular tobacco.

But there needs to be more research on whether “vaping” is as safe as the people selling the product claim, said Donelle Howell, a public health researcher at Washington State University Spokane who has spent the past three years researching e-cigarettes.

Howell, along with several other WSU researchers, is part of a growing cadre of clinicians and scientists investigating the health effects of electronic cigarettes.

“The hard part is that up to now, no one has standardized how this product is made, where it’s made and how it should be marketed,” said Howell, a clinical psychologist in WSU’s College of Nursing in downtown Spokane.

In a recent research project, Howell established that many buyers of e-cigarettes are receiving less nicotine than the product labels advertise.

The results, published in the journal Tobacco Control, found six of seven off-the-shelf samples from several Spokane retailers had lower concentrations of nicotine than listed, she said.

“There is incredible variability in what you will find when you buy this product,” she said.

“They could have been made anywhere, and no one has to worry about (regulations) at this point,” she added.

While the research focused only on actual contents, not the quality of the product, Howell said many researchers are looking harder at testing the claims of e-cigarette makers that their product is less addictive, less harmful and can be smoked indoors without creating secondhand smoke.

The products tested by Howell included one sample that was a plastic vial with a hand-scrawled label, suggesting it could have been produced in a Third World factory or in someone’s basement, she said.

That hand-labeled vial, claiming it had 25 to 36 milligrams of nicotine per milliliter, actually had 12.3 mg/ml, Howell said.

Some of the samples were in sealed, pre-packaged boxes, suggesting they were produced by a large company and sold internationally. Those samples also had less nicotine than advertised, she said.

Only one sample, for “Smart Smoke” liquid, exceeded or met the listed amount. Its label advertised 5 to 14 mg/ml. The sample tested as having 8.4 mg/ml, Howell noted.

Howell said the wide variation in nicotine content would likely also be seen if researchers looked at bulk containers of e-cigarette liquid that’s sold widely on the Internet. Many smokers buy those containers, ranging from 20 milliliters up to 1 gallon, to load into their e-cigarette systems, thus saving money.

Those bottled e-cigarette liquids come in various flavors such as raspberry or watermelon, and that creates the risk that children may ingest the contents, Howell said.

In April the U.S. Federal Drug Administration proposed establishing rules to control the advertising of e-cigarettes. The cigarette industry has said it’s still reviewing the proposed rules and has not indicated any opposition, especially to the FDA’s goal of curbing ads that may appeal to young adults or teens.

It’s not clear when such regulations would take effect.

Without applicable state or federal laws, businesses here are free to allow or ban vaping inside their buildings.

Also working with Howell on the research project was John Roll, senior vice chancellor at WSU’s nursing school. Roll was able to fund the project through state fees dedicated for alcohol and substance abuse research at WSU and the University of Washington.

Roll said WSU has a long-term interest in focusing on alcohol, drugs and tobacco, and he wants to see more projects that help identify ways to treat substance abuse.

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