Speed Reads

Burning questions

Are we really facing an e-cigarette epidemic?

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The CDC on Thursday released a new report on electronic cigarette poisonings, and at first blush the topline finding is quite a shocker: Calls to poison control centers involving e-cigarette liquids skyrocketed from one per month in September 2010 to 215 this past February.

"In the Hands of Babes, E-Cigarettes Can Be Deadly," proclaimed a Time story on the report. Spooky, right?

I'm a little more skeptical about the exact scope of the danger though, and whether this truly is a budding epidemic or simply hyperbolic fearmongering. For one, the huge spike in poison control calls corresponds to a huge spike in e-cig sales. Companies sold 750,000 e-cigs in 2010, a total that ballooned to 2.5 million one year later and that has only grown since then. The industry is now projected to see sales of $2.75 billion this year. Certainly a dramatic rise in poisonings is concerning, but the magnitude of that change is a little skewed because the baseline was basically nil.

More to the point, though e-liquids can be quite poisonous to small children, so, too, can conventional cigarettes. According to the CDC, the latter still comprise almost six in ten poison control calls involving either of the two types. And as for the supposed problem of e-cigarettes luring young people to try other, more dangerous drugs, the research is spotty at best.

The CDC and others are right to raise red flags about the dangers of e-cigarettes. But the danger may not be the product itself, but rather the fact that they're relatively new and so far unregulated at the federal level.