Numbered ticket in hand, I walked away briefly from the deli counter at my local supermarket to grab a baguette for lunch. As I turned back, I saw a plume of smoke rising over a cold cuts company's display and wondered: What's on fire? As I approached, I smelled something definitely non-deli, an odor somewhere between 1970s-vintage patchouli and a teenage locker room.
Turns out the guy in line behind me was enjoying a vapor-driven e-cigarette. The workers behind the counter and I were gobsmacked.
"Vaping" is here, and if you haven't yet had this experience, rest assured -- you will.
So it was with some self-interest that I clicked through a new report on emerging insurance risks from reinsurance giant Swiss Re to explore the potential casualty loss risk of e-cigarettes.
It turns out Swiss Re isn't just blowing smoke.
Vomiting and seizures
Here in the U.S., e-cigarettes are booming, with sales last year exceeding $1 billion. Swiss Re waves off the as-yet-unproven health benefits of e-cigs as a way of weaning smokers off tobacco products and gets to the issue that's likely to employ battalions of litigators fairly soon: the e-liquids that become vaporized by the miniature heaters inside the e-cig, a substance Swiss Re describes as "powerful neurotoxins."
"When e-liquids are ingested or absorbed through the skin, they can cause vomiting and seizures and can even be lethal. Toxicologists warn that e-liquids pose a significant risk to public health, particularly to children. They also represent a serious workplace hazard for those preparing and selling them," the report says.
In Swiss Re's estimation, the growing popularity of e-cigarettes poses two major insurance risks:
- If they turn out to be more harmful to health than recognized today, causing major respiratory and other ill effects, e-cigarettes may trigger the kinds of liability claims against their producers that the tobacco industry experienced in the second half of the 20th century.
- E-cigarettes might kill you. "Their long-term health effects are not yet known since they have not been on the market long enough," the report says.
The EU cracks down
In February, the European Union reined in e-cigarettes. Beginning in mid-2016:
- All advertising of e-cigs will be banned in its member nations.
- All packaging must be childproof and bear a safety warning.
- The nicotine content of the e-liquid will be capped at 20 milligrams per milliliter.
In April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration published a proposed rule that, if adopted, would subject e-cigarettes to federal regulation for the first time by bringing them under the agency's tobacco controls.
Postscript: Coincidentally or not, Bloomberg reports that "e-cigs have hit a wall" after U.S. sales fell in May and June following five years of steady growth.
Perhaps there's something in the air.
Most life insurers have already stubbed out e-cigarettes.
Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus
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