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Stanford experts skeptical about motives behind e-cigarette health warnings

Quotes can sometimes make or break a news article. I was skimming a New York Times article on new, harsh health warnings from tobacco companies when a quote from Stanford otolaryngologist Robert Jackler, MD, stopped me in my tracks.

"When I saw it, I nearly fell off my chair," Jackler told the Times. What made a renowned expert in tobacco advertising fall off his chair? I was hooked (and not on cigarettes, thankfully) and had to keep reading.

It turns out that Jackler had spotted the warning on MarkTen e-cigarette packs, which details many of the deleterious effects of nicotine, calling it "very toxic by inhalation, in contact with the skin, or if swallowed." The product is not to be used by children, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, anyone with heart disease or high blood pressure, or those taking medication for depression or asthma. The list goes on.

These warnings are voluntary, explained the Times' Matt Richtel, who also wrote:

Experts with years studying tobacco company behavior say they strongly suspect several motives, but, chiefly, that the e-cigarette warnings are a very low-risk way for the companies to insulate themselves from future lawsuits and, even more broadly, to appear responsible, open and frank. By doing so, the experts said, big tobacco curries favor with consumers and regulators, earning a kind of legitimacy that they crave and have sought for decades. Plus, they get to appear more responsible than the smaller e-cigarette companies that seek to unseat them.

The tobacco companies say they are striving to be honest and open. With another choice quote, Stephanie Cordisco, president of the R. J. Reynolds Vapor Company, told the Times: "We're here to make sure we can put this industry on the right side of history."

Not so, Stanford science historian Robert Proctor, PhD, responded. He called the voluntary warnings "totally Orwellian."

"They do everything for legal reasons, otherwise they'd stop making the world's deadliest consumer products," Proctor said.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing about science and practicing yoga. She is an intern in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. 

Previously: How e-cigarettes are sparking a new wave of tobacco marketing, E-cigarettes and the FDA: A conversation with a tobacco-marketing researcher and What the experience of Swedish snuff can teach us about e-cigarettes

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