E-cigarettes have gained widespread popularity as an alternative to traditional tobacco cigarettes, with hundreds of millions of these devices expected to be imported into the United States in 2015. The majority of imported e-cigarettes are from China, where most of these devices are manufactured without any regulations or safety standards. E-cigarettes are marketed as a “safer alternative” to regular tobacco cigarettes, but new concerns about their safety are coming to light.
Recent news stories report the risk of fires caused by e-cigarettes, which use powerful lithium ion batteries, and off-market sales of cheap, inferior devices is a threat to reputable marketers of these products. As an attorney working on national subrogation defense programs for product manufacturers, I have been involved with several fire investigations in the past year where it was revealed that an e-cigarette device and charger were present in the area of origin of the fire and suspected as the likely cause.
Counterfeiting also has been identified as a growing problem within the e-cigarette market. The ubiquitous nature of the product and the fact that it is sold in convenience stores, pharmacies and smoke shops and on the Internet contribute to the difficulty in identifying the actual manufacturers of these devices after they have been involved in a fire. This potentially leaves the distributor or retailer on the hook for the consequences.
In addition, there are growing concerns about the safety of e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco. While the FDA is studying the problem, there are currently no national regulations governing e-cigarettes, and sales to minors are not prohibited in many states. Moreover, a recent New York Times article, “China’s E-Cigarette Boom Lacks Oversight for Safety,” identified heavy metals, carcinogens and other dangerous compounds, such as lead, tin and zinc, in some e-cigarettes. Another study mentioned in the article identified hazardous nickel and chromium at higher levels than found in traditional cigarettes.
A recent survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health found teens are using fewer tobacco products, but many more are turning to e-cigarettes.
Sharp growth in the popularity of e-cigarettes, the lack of regulation and safety standards, and counterfeiting activity are all attributes of a product that will likely become an emerging area of growth for the plaintiffs’ bar. Product liability class actions and claims for damages and injuries caused by fires and by long-term exposure to toxic substances are all in the mix.