For the first time ever, a national public health department has declared that electronic cigarettes are safer than regular tobacco cigarettes.
According to an article in the New Zealand Herald: "The [New Zealand] Ministry of Health has stated that electronic cigarettes are "far safer" than smoking tobacco."
This may be the first time that any public health agency has made such a declaration. In the United States, the FDA has warned the public about the dangers of electronic cigarettes, tried to discourage the public from using these products, and attempted (unsuccessfully) to take electronic cigarettes off the market. Local health departments have also discouraged smokers from using these products. Anti-smoking groups have also tried to get electronic cigarettes taken off the market.
According to the article, the New Zealand Ministry of Health concluded that: "As the e-cigarette delivers only nicotine ... without the 4000 or so other chemicals in tobacco smoke, it is far safer than smoking. The risks to smokers of pure nicotine, delivered in doses seen with the e-cigarette and nicotine replacement therapy products, are extremely low."
Nevertheless, the Ministry of Health stopped short of encouraging smokers to use these products to quit smoking. In fact, the article states that: "The ministry considers them an unapproved medicine and says their distribution would be an offence."
The Rest of the Story
I congratulate the New Zealand Ministry of Health for being the first public health agency to draw the solid, evidence-based conclusion that electronic cigarettes are far safer than tobacco cigarettes. My review of the scientific evidence (published in the Journal of Public Health Policy) came to the same conclusion.
However, it is still baffling that after concluding that electronic cigarettes are far safer than tobacco cigarettes, the Ministry of Health would then declare that the distribution of these products would be an "offence." An offence to what? The profits of tobacco companies? The sale of chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer? The profits of hospitals that treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease?
This schizophrenic action of the New Zealand health ministry demonstrates the resistance in the tobacco control movement to the concept of harm reduction. Here, the Ministry of Health has concluded, unequivocally, that electronic cigarettes are far safer than tobacco cigarettes because they deliver nicotine without the tens of thousands of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in tobacco smoke. However, the ministry does not want smokers to use this much safer product. It would still prefer that smokers use the real cigarettes. And it would still prefer that ex-smokers who have successfully quit by virtue of electronic cigarettes return to smoking the real, toxic ones.
This mentality makes no sense. It is the product of an ideology in tobacco control that simply does not allow the concept of harm reduction to enter the picture.
But at least there is one victory here: the first ever acknowledgment by a public health agency that electronic cigarettes are far safer than the analogues.