WASHINGTON — A growing number of small children in Arkansas are being exposed to potentially lethal doses of liquid nicotine contained in a small vials used to refill e-cigarettes.
Already this year, 21 children ages 5 and under have been exposed to liquid nicotine, surpassing last year’s total of 20, according to Howell Foster, director of the Arkansas Poison Center.
Similar figures of liquid nicotine poisoning are being reported around the country, raising concerns among federal lawmakers over how these products are packaged and marketed.
The Centers for Disease Control on Thursday afternoon published a report noting the number of calls to poison centers involving e-cigarette liquids containing nicotine increased from one per month in September 2010 to 215 per month this February.
Poison centers still get more calls involving conventional cigarettes, where young children have eaten tobacco, but the gap is swiftly closing as the use of e-cigarettes continues to grow. Poisoning from e-cigarettes can occur through ingestion, inhalation or absorption through the skin or eyes.
Nearly 42 percent of all nicotine-related poison calls involved e-cigarette liquids in February, according to the report.
“Use of these products is skyrocketing and these poisonings will continue. E-cigarette liquids as currently sold are a threat to small children because they are not required to be childproof, and they come in candy and fruit flavors that are appealing to children,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden.
Foster raised similar concerns for children in Arkansas.
The small vials of liquid nicotine used to refill e-cigarettes are easy to purchase online or in stores. Commonly, the vials contain about two teaspoons of liquid nicotine – enough to pose a life-threatening risk to a small child.
“We need child safety packaging,” Foster said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not currently regulate companies that manufacture and sell electronic cigarette refills or other products containing liquid nicotine.
The products, however, could come under FDA regulation in the future — depending on as yet unwritten regulations for tobacco-like products that Congress requested more than four years ago.
Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, raised the issue Thursday morning at a hearing where FDA Director Margaret A. Hamburg appeared.
“We can’t wait for another tragedy to act,” Pryor said. “It seems like child-proof packaging is a common-sense first step.”
Hamburg said the FDA’s hands are tied until a final “deeming” regulation is approved under the 2009 Tobacco Control Act. The FDA is still writing the proposed rule.
“I share your concern about liquid nicotine exposure. It is an area that requires greater attention, action and concern but at this time we do not have authority unless they make a therapeutic claim,” Hamburg said.
The regulation vacuum has created a “wild west” environment, according to Pryor. Dozens of other products are for sale with child-friendly names and flavors like Scooby Snacks and Moon Pies.
“I think they are clearly targeting the kids to try and get them hooked on nicotine,” Pryor said.
Merkley agreed — pointing to an explosion in cigars wrapped in colorful packages and flavored with sweet cherry, grape and strawberry as well.
“You all have to get this ‘deeming’ regulation done. You have a responsibility to the health of American citizens and our children. And, four years and four months to get to the first draft is unacceptable,” Merkley said.