Elected officials and anti-smoking advocates need to re-think their knee-jerk reaction and hostility to e-cigarettes and vaping. It seems like every day we hear a new attack – yet these products are actually helping some people quit or cut back on the much more dangerous alternative of smoking tobacco. In May, a large study out of England that was published in the journal Addiction made worldwide newswhen they announced that smokers trying to quit were 60 percent more likely to succeed if they used electronic cigarettes than over-the-counter therapies such as nicotine patches or gum.
Despite these promising results, politicians are grilling e-cigarette companies. In a major New York Times piece last week, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia denounced manufacturers of flavored e-cigarettes, saying they should be ashamed of themselves and that they are “what’s wrong with this country.” He claims that flavors like coconut, cherry, and peach are designed to hook young people.
While I understand the concern of marketing e-cigarettes to young people and nonsmokers, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these products are helping millions of people stop or cut back on smoking. Vaping is a safer delivery system for nicotine, and many people enjoy the flavor and find it pleasant – that’s why more and more people are turning to it. Do we really want to limit flavors if they are helping people move away from smoking? It is ironic that anti-smoking advocates, whose goal is to get people not to smoke, are attacking a practice that is succeeding in getting people not to smoke. Shouldn’t we be applauding the fact that so many people are embracing this harm reduction practice?
The justification and rationalization for Senator Rockefeller and so many anti-smoking voices is that old mantra: “what about the children?” I have worked to end our nation’s disastrous war on drugs for the last fourteen years at the Drug Policy Alliance. Whenever we propose programs that reduce the harms of drug use, our opponents respond with the false claim that we are sending the “wrong message” to young people. We should never let politically expedient sound bites trump interventions proven to minimize the health consequences of drugs.
Young people are not stupid. They can handle the truth. In fact, it was honest anti-smoking campaigns that have led to big drops in smoking rates. We need to continue with honest education about vaping and e-cigs. We rightly tell young people that smoking tobacco is a leading cause of premature death, and we tell them how incredibly addictive nicotine can be and that it is one of the hardest things in the world to quit.
We should also tell them that while we need more research, dozens of health experts sent a letter to the World Health Organization urging them to embrace e-cigarettes as a life-saving intervention, saying that e-cigarettes “could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st century, perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives.” We should explain to them that millions of people are deciding to improve their health with the much safer practice of vaping instead of smoking tobacco. This type of honesty and context is the right “message” for young people.
Tony Newman is the director of media relations at the Drug Policy Alliance(www.drugpolicy.org)