STRASBOURG, France — In a decision likely to resonate in the United States and in other countries struggling to get a grip on a galloping market for e-cigarettes, the European Parliament on Tuesday scrapped health officials’ proposals that the nicotine-delivery devices be tightly regulated as medicines. Instead, lawmakers endorsed a more permissive approach to their sale and use.
The use of electronic cigarettes, primarily by smokers looking for a way to kick their tobacco habit, has skyrocketed in Europe and also the United States, with sales growing so fast that some Wall Street analysts predict the battery-powered devices could surpass cigarettes within a decade. But the products and their use have quickly outrun any rules on either side of the Atlantic for regulating them.
Europe’s new rules for e-cigarettes, contained in a draft law known as the Tobacco Products Directive, fill a legal vacuum around a product whose explosive growth has left regulators and health officials struggling to catch up. Some governments in Europe have tried to rigidly regulate and even ban e-cigarettes, but this has led to a flurry of often successful court actions by e-cigarette companies determined to defend their product. In the United States, too, efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to devise e-cigarette rules have been tied up by industry litigation.
Although Tuesday’s vote is not the end of the rule-making process for e-cigarettes in Europe, experts say the finish line is now in sight.
The industry is dominated by small operators who import lithium batteries, raw nicotine fluid and other materials from low-cost production centers like China. Instead of smoke from burning tobacco, users ingest the nicotine in the form of vapors from the heated fluid — an alternative to smoking commonly referred to as vaping. These companies, supported by growing legions of e-cigarette users, had lobbied hard against medicinal regulation and on Tuesday welcomed the European Parliament vote as a victory for good health and good sense.
“This is a fantastic result for public health and the millions of smokers around Europe who are switching to e-cigarettes,” said Charles Hamshaw-Thomas, corporate affairs director of Britain’s biggest e-cigarette brand by sales volume, E-Lites. “Common sense has prevailed.”
But while exempting e-cigarettes from an onerous and potentially very costly certification process required for drugs, an amendment to the Tobacco Products Directive approved by parliamentarians imposes tight restrictions on advertising and sponsorship. In these areas, e-cigarettes face the same restraints as regular cigarettes. Sale to anyone under 18 is prohibited.