The rising popularity of electronic cigarettes and concerns over their possible ill-effects have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to fund a $275 million research to gain more information about e-cigarettes and the effects of using the device.
The research, which intends to identify the risks of e-cigarette use before more Americans get hooked to it, involves 48 projects that aim to address questions that are deemed crucial in the development of future regulations that will affect the marketing and use of the controversial device.
One group of researchers evaluating the risks of using electronic cigarettes is counting the puffs of vapers who volunteered for the research. Another group is building a virtual convenience store targeting individuals between 13 and 17 years old to assess how e-cigarette displays and pricing schemes affect the tendencies of minors to buy the device, and a third group is monitoring Facebook for posts that would help them determine how people tinker with their e-cigarette device so it delivers more nicotine.
"If it turns out that people are tinkering with the electronics to increase the voltage of e-cigarettes, and FDA regulations limit the maximum voltage, that's useful to know," said Robert Balster, a toxicologist from the Virginia Commonwealth University who helps oversee four of the FDA-funded projects. The researchers said that it may take two years or more before the final results become available.
In the absence of detailed studies on e-cigarettes, the FDA acknowledged that the potential risks and possible benefits of using the device cannot yet be identified. Despite concerns about young people getting hooked to e-cigarettes, the FDA also said that it isn't yet clear if e-cigarettes can lead young people to try other conventional tobacco products such as cigarettes, which have long been linked with a number of serious diseases including lung cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and even early death.
The agency, however, said that it regularly receives voluntary adverse event reports that involve use of e-cigarettes from the public which include hospitalizations for illnesses such as congestive heart failure, pneumonia, disorientation, seizure and abnormal low blood pressure. Still, it remains unknown if these adverse events were indeed linked with the use of e-cigarettes as the FDA said that these health problems may be related to an existing medical condition or the illness may be due to other causes.
"Whether e-cigarettes caused these reported adverse events is unknown," the FDA said. "Some of the adverse events could be related to a pre-existing medical condition or to other causes that were not reported to FDA."