E-cigarettes present a public health conundrum: They appear to be far less dangerous than regular tobacco cigarettes are, but much more damaging than not smoking at all. Because they are not regulated, they can be marketed and sold to children and adult nonsmokers.

Current law sharply limits advertising for cigarettes, drastically limits where people can smoke them, and outlaws purchase by those under age 18. None of those regulations apply to e-cigs.

As Bulletin reporter Markian Hawryluk reported in Monday’s High Desert Pulse magazine, 2.5 million people in the U.S. now use e-cigs, only a few years after they exploded into the market in 2006. But although they eliminate many of the most damaging health effects of smoking tobacco, they do addict regular users to nicotine. Just as worrisome, little is known about longer-term health impacts of the myriad different styles of e-cigs, which come in hundreds of brands and thousands of flavors.

Some critics want e-cigs treated like tobacco products, while others say such extensive regulation could devastate the young industry and harm smokers for whom e-cigs would be a healthier alternative.

It will take time to find the appropriate level for regulation of this revolutionary product and to persuade lawmakers to pass enabling legislation.

One thing seems clear, however: Children should not be able to buy e-cigs, and marketing that targets children should be banned immediately. Protecting children likely also requires placing e-cigs behind store counters rather than in accessible displays.

In Prineville, the City Council has indicated a willingness to consider establishing local regulation. Kris Williams, tobacco-prevention coordinator for the Crook County Health Department, has urged the council to treat e-cigs the same way cigarettes are treated, according to a report in the Central Oregonian newspaper. She argues a local ordinance could go into effect swiftly, whereas state or national legislation will be a long time coming.

While we share Williams’ sense of urgency, we think a smarter approach is to ban sales to youngsters without imposing the full weight of tobacco regulation to this new industry. Protect the kids while more is learned about the right way to manage the rest.

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