Are the Flavors in E-Cigarettes/E-Liquids Safe? Scientists are Warning Maybe Not
E-cigarette and vaping companies use flavors as a way to market their products to customers and, public health experts argue, to attract youth. E-cigarettes or vaporizers are battery operated devices designed to turn e-liquids (nicotine and other chemicals such as flavoring) into vapor that is then inhaled. As of January 2014, there were more than 7,700 different e-cigarette/e-liquid flavors available and approximately 250 new flavors added to the market each month. With the proliferation of exotic flavors like Twista Lime, Kauai Kolada, Caribbean Chill and Mintrigue comes the question – are the chemicals in these flavor ingredients safe to inhale? Scientists are warning: maybe not.
The e-cigarette and vaping industries claim that the flavoring ingredients they use are either “food grade” or meet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s standard for food safety, called the “generally recognized as safe” standard. However, just because an ingredient is safe to eat or drink does not mean it is safe to smoke. The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, which has taken the lead in assessing the safety of flavor ingredients, specifically warns that its safety evaluations are limited to the use of flavorings in food, and not in tobacco or e-cigarettes/e-liquids. In fact, no organization is responsible for regulating the safety of flavors in inhaled nicotine products.
Why is there reason for concern?
At least one flavoring that is safe to eat has been shown to cause serious and even fatal lung damage when heated and inhaled. Diacetyl, a buttery flavor often used in microwave popcorn, has been linked to severe and irreversible obstructive lung disease when inhaled.
In 2014, researchers tested 159 samples of sweet-flavored e-cigarette liquids and found that over two-thirds contained diacetyl. Among the samples containing diacetyl, half of them contained concentrations of the chemical that exceeded safety limits for workplace exposure. A quarter of the samples containing diacetyl had more than five times the level of the buttery flavoring that is recommended as safe in the workplace. The workplace exposure limits are only regulatory guidelines, they do not mean it’s safe to inhale flavorings at this level daily.
Some e-cigarette/e-liquid manufacturers have chosen to stop using diacetyl in their products. However, diacetyl is only one of a number of potentially dangerous flavor ingredients. In a 2012 report on respiratory health and safety in the flavor manufacturing workplace, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association lists dozens of additional flavoring ingredients that may cause harm if heated and inhaled.
Why should the FDA ban flavorings in e-cigarettes/e-liquids?
Because there is no regulatory oversight of the flavoring used in e-cigarettes and e-liquids, it’s hard to know what ingredients are being used, and whether they are safe to inhale. The FDA has banned the use of flavors other than menthol in combustible cigarettes because flavored cigarettes appeal to kids. CASAColumbia and many others have urged the FDA to extend the flavor ban to e-cigarettes and e-liquids to protect kids. New questions about the safety of e-cigarette flavors suggest that such a ban may also protect adults, because what’s safe to eat may not be safe to breathe.
Emily Feinstein, JD
Emily Feinstein is Director of Health Law and Policy at CASAColumbia