Are E Cigarettes an Effective Tobacco Harm Reduction Option?

tobacco harm reduction

Over the last several decades, a concerted effort has been made to lower the rate of tobacco use to better protect public health. Though the debate over the actual harm caused by tobacco raged for many years, virtually all of the experts and policy makers – as well as most members of the public – now agree that cigarettes and other tobacco products are inherently harmful to human health. For many millions of people, however, the desire to use nicotine has not been eliminated. Tobacco harm reduction (THR) strategies have become a popular way to try to reduce the health risks those nicotine users face. Electronic cigarettes have emerged as one of the most popular of those harm reduction options. The question is, though, are they actually effective in that role?

What is Tobacco Harm Reduction?

Put simply, the concept relates to public health policies and other strategic efforts designed to limit the harm suffered by people who use nicotine products. From a scientific standpoint, the experts agree that nicotine poses little risk to human health on its own. The real harm is typically caused by the nicotine delivery devices that users choose. For example, tobacco cigarettes are the most commonly used nicotine delivery device in the world, and their dangers are well-documented. An effective THR program would thus seek to eliminate the cigarette delivery vehicle and replace it with a safer alternative or some form of abstinence.

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quitMillions of people have simply quit smoking, often using smoking cessation tools like nicotine gum, replacement therapies, and even counseling. Many others have simply abstained. The problem is that studies indicate that most smoking cessation options have only a 10% rate of effectiveness. That has led some experts to conclude that public policy should be redirected to focus on harm reduction strategies that have a demonstrably higher rate of effectiveness than tactics that simply promote cessation or reduced smoking activity.

E-Cigs as a Tobacco Harm Reduction Option

While smokeless tobacco continues to be the most popular of all risk reduction tools, the electronic cigarette is rapidly closing the gap. After bursting into the mainstream consumer markets a relatively short time ago, these products have quickly been seized upon by millions of desperate smokers desiring a safer way to obtain their nicotine. And while some in government and media circles have attempted to cast doubt on e-cig safety, study after study confirms that they are as much as 95% safer than tobacco cigarettes.

Like nicotine gum and other harm reduction tools, vaping products provide their users with a way to obtain the nicotine they crave and enjoy, without the harmful byproducts produced by combustible tobacco offerings. Studies indicate a number of important things that demonstrate just how effective these products can be at helping people to escape tobacco’s dangerous effects.

  • Research indicates that these devices produce no toxins at levels that pose a serious threat to human health.
  • Scientific studies have confirmed that, unlike tobacco products, vaping devices do not release harmful secondhand toxins into the air that might potentially harm others in the area.
  • Researchers have tested these products’ impact on children and discovered that neither adult nor teenage non-smokers seem to be attracted by the thought of trying the devices.
  • In studies, a large percentage of those who switch from dangerous tobacco cigarettes to the safer vaping devices remain tobacco free from that point onward.

There was a case, shown here, discussed with the US National Library of Medicine discussing the favor of electronic cigarettes as a tobacco harm reduction strategy.

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The Controversy

controversyDespite the effectiveness of even the best e-cigarettes, public policy makers seem intent on refusing to recognize the importance of tobacco harm reduction strategies that don’t involve outright cessation. Rather than embracing one of the most demonstrably effective THR strategies to come along in years, the media consistently attempts to mischaracterize the danger. The government, meanwhile, effectively argues that an inability to demonstrate a complete lack of harm should be given more credence than demonstrable evidence suggesting that these devices are dramatically safer than tobacco.

As public policy, harm reduction is not about harm elimination. Efforts to reduce drinking and driving dangers are not deemed ineffective simply because some people continue to drink and drive. No one tells drivers and passengers to forgo their seat belts just because those safety devices are not completely effective in eliminating all traffic injuries and deaths. And yet, that is precisely what the government does when it comes to electronic cigarettes. The fact that they can only be demonstrated to prevent most tobacco harm is used to suggest that they are somehow as dangerous as cigarettes.

In the end, tobacco harm reduction policy is designed to limit the damage done by cigarettes to human health. If that effort is to be taken seriously, every tool that can successfully be used to divert citizens away from tobacco and its dangers should be championed by policymakers and the media. Electronic cigarettes reduce tobacco harm, and any effort to hide that fact from the public will invariably harm people who might otherwise be saved from tobacco cigarette health consequences.