In 2009, Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration wide authority to oversee tobacco products. The agency has moved cautiously in flexing that power. On Thursday, for the first time, the FDA "deemed" several tobacco products to be under its watch, including cigars, pipe tobacco, nicotine gels, hookahs and e-cigarettes. This move is welcome, if overdue. The FDA now has to conduct the tricky work of figuring out when further restrictions, particularly on e-cigarettes, help and when they might actually harm public health.
As long as the FDA steers clear of direct regulation of products other than cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and roll-your-own tobacco, public health advocates rightly worry that potential smokers particularly children and teenagers will find it easier or more appealing to use unregulated products with varying or unknown public health effects. The agency says that expanding its oversight, which Congress gave it the power to do, is the first, "foundational" step toward broad regulation of these alternatives to cigarettes.
The FDA is demanding some concrete steps of manufacturers upfront. They will have to register their products with the agency and reveal their ingredients. They will have to attach warning labels. Many vending machines will become off-limits. And the federal government will ban e-cigarette sales to minors. Once regulators gather more information on the harm various products can cause and on how people are obtaining and using them, they can do more in the interest of public health, such as consider bans on Internet sales, candy-like flavorings or certain kinds of marketing.