"What New York is doing is equivalent to outlawing lifeboats on a sinking ship because they haven't been FDA approved," he added. "It's a really crazy approach to public health."
For other experts, the list of unknowns is still too large for them to consider e-cigarettes worth recommending. Some users, Talbot said, have reported problems with their lungs and throats that have forced them to stop using the devices.
And even though industry-funded studies have deemed the devices to be safe, an FDA report found levels of carcinogens and toxic contaminants that they determined to be were worthy of concern. Without regulation, Talobt added, cartridges may contain undisclosed chemicals that could end up being more toxic than tobacco smoke.
Quality control is also lacking. In a recent study, Talbot evaluated six brands of e-cigarettes acquired over the Internet. None of the devices were labeled clearly with nicotine levels, expiration dates or other information, she reported in December in the journal Tobacco Control.
Most cartridges leaked onto her hands, the study found, and all were defective in some way. Talbot also found unsubstantiated health claims on many of the company websites and print materials. One says they put vitamins in their e-cigarettes.
Other experts worry about the appeal of e-cigarettes to children. The devices are easy to buy online or in mall kiosks. They come in flavors ranging from chocolate to bubble gum. You can buy them in pink, gold or blue.
"Once a youth has decided to try an e-cigarette, there is nothing that protects him from getting addicted to nicotine by puffing this product," wrote Jonathan Winickoff, a pediatrician at the MassGeneral Hospital for Children, in a letter to the FDA. "Nicotine itself is not safe for children. Nicotine addiction is one of the hardest addictions to break."
New York's move is a reaction to what can't yet happen on the national level. According to a series of recent court decisions, e-cigarettes cannot qualify as drug delivery products, said Jeff Ventura, a spokesman for the FDA. As a result, the agency cannot ban them or require more arduous testing.
But even though they are now considered tobacco products, they are not mentioned in the Tobacco Control Act, either. For now, then, they remain unapproved and unregulated.
And anyone is free to buy them.