Tobacco Harm Reduction Matters

Among all the furor that has developed around the FDA’s proposed guidelines for regulating e-cigarettes, perhaps the most consistently articulated and most consistently overlooked argument for their sale and use is the argument for tobacco harm reduction. We’ve touched on this point already before, but it remains an important one, especially in light of North Carolina Senator Richard Burr’s recent comments opposing the position advanced by Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, arguing that e-cigarettes should not be generally available.

At the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions meeting yesterday, Senator Burr stated, among other things:

I can remember when opportunities for harm reduction were the goal. And they couldn’t be achieved because the technology didn’t allow us to get there…and how quickly we’ve moved now to a point where harm reduction is no longer a goal; and the technology now allows us to get there….Let’s not say we’re not going to let technology play a part of the process of taking more Americans off of using combustible tobacco products.

Essentially, Burr argues that non-combustible tobacco products, among which he lists nicotine gum and the nicotine patch, are a viable, desirable, and effective method of reducing the harm caused by tobacco. If you haven’t seen the video yet, go watch it. Burr is very articulate.

Senator Burr is right: harm reduction matters. Indeed, it matters much more than the FDA, between its proposal and some comments it has since fielded would suggest.

Tobacco is a legal, if restricted, product. We all know that cigarettes are addictive. This is due to a substance called nicotine, which can be found in the leaves of tobacco plants. We also know that cigarettes are harmful. This is partially due to the nicotine that is their active ingredient, but it is also to a large degree due to the tar, carbon monoxide, and other substances that one inhales along with nicotine when one smokes a cigarette. There is a reason why most cigarettes come with filters on them.

Non-combustible nicotine delivery systems, including electronic cigarettes, put users in significantly less danger than the combustible alternatives.

Regardless of whether or not we as a society desire for people to smoke cigarettes, the fact of the matter is that they are. Many such people may find it difficult, if not impossible, to quit smoking, on account of the addictive properties of nicotine. Given that this is not going to be treated as a medical issue any time soon, why, then, do FDA representatives insist that smokers must suffer the consequences of regular smoke inhalation, instead of using alternative delivery systems that will enable them to lead healthier, fuller, lives?

Harm reduction matters because there are very real risks to smoke exposure, including the ingestion of carcinogens. We can’t legislate an end to nicotine addiction, but we can legislate alternative delivery methods that keep us from endangering ourselves so radically, and that also keep us from exposing others to the same toxic chemicals.

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