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The Deadly Crusade Against E-cigarettes

Thursday, November 15, 2012

What the critics see as a bug is actually a feature: e-cigarettes can work as a public health tool precisely because of their resemblance to the real thing.

It’s among the most important public health problems in the world — preventing the devastation wreaked by smoking. Experts predict the global death toll of cigarettes will approach 1 billion lives lost this century. But misguided or agenda-driven public health officials worldwide are condemning one hope for slowing this catastrophe — electronic cigarettes, or “e-cigarettes,” and certain low-risk tobacco products that have the potential to reduce the risk caused by smoking.

Public health officials are gathered at a conclave in Seoul, South Korea, for the revision of an international tobacco treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). They’ll be taking up e-cigarettes and perhaps even calling for a ban.

The logic employed by these critics is that since e-cigarettes look like actual cigarettes, they must be curbed as well.

But what the critics see as a bug is actually a feature: e-cigarettes can work as a public health tool precisely because of their resemblance to the real thing.

E-cigarettes work by giving addicted smokers the nicotine they crave, without the toxic smoke. They supply a variable amount of nicotine in a watery vapor and produce a red glow at the tip when puffed upon.

That similarity — especially the nicotine, the addictive substance smokers crave — is what is best about e-cigarettes. The nicotine “hit” they supply matches, more or less, that of inhaling cigarette smoke, as do the behavioral mannerisms of holding the thing as though it was their familiar “friend,” the conventional cigarette.

Among the 46 million smokers in the United States, well over half say they want to quit, and more than one-third attempt to do so each year — but less than one-tenth succeed.

But that’s where the similarity ends. There are no products of combustion to be inhaled hundreds of times a day, and hence no tobacco toxins.

E-cigarette users — they call themselves “vapers” — get the satisfying drug but none of the tarry smoke. That’s why many smokers who switch to e-cigarettes succeed in staying smoke-free.

An important fact, rarely discussed by “public health” gurus, is that the patches, gums, and drugs they recommend as “safe and effective” are all-too-often neither. Among the 46 million smokers in the United States, well over half say they want to quit, and more than one-third attempt to do so each year — but less than one-tenth succeed.

Despite those sorry statistics, those in charge at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and the European Union health commission argue for sticking with currently approved cessation methods.

Lethally addictive cigarettes remain available on every street corner in Brussels and Atlanta while authorities denounce e-cigarettes (the product is already banned in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand). And while, as of today, e-cigarettes remain available in the European Union, a new Tobacco Products Directive is expected this year to call for a ban on e-cigarettes (while tightening the existing proscription on the nearly harmless type of Swedish smokeless, snus). Such measures would leave addicted smokers with few reliable means of quitting.

Prohibiting the safest form of nicotine delivery will increase, not stem, cigarette-related deaths. Truly informing smokers about reduced-risk nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and increasing access to these products is a good way to save millions of lives.

Dr. Gilbert Ross, M.D. is executive and medical director of the American Council on Science and Health.

FURTHER READING: Ross also writes “An Empty Nod to Tort Reform,” “Better Living Through Chemistry (If Permitted),” and “Two Cheers for the FDA.” Scott Gottlieb discusses “Bam's Cigar Trouble” and “How the FDA Could Cost You Your Life.” Jon Entine contributes “The Politics of Obesity: Here Comes the NGO-Media-Class Action Bar Complex.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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