Monday, March 30, 2009

Absurdity Gone Wild: Health Canada Asks Smokers Not to Use E-Cigarettes Because of Safety Concerns, But Not to Refrain from the Known Toxic Ones

In a health advisory issued last week, Health Canada has warned smokers not to buy or use electronic cigarettes because they "may pose health risks" and "have not been fully evaluated for safety" by the government, but in the same advisory, Health Canada expresses no concern whatsoever about smokers buying or using regular cigarettes which are known to pose health risks and which have been fully evaluated for safety and found to be toxic and potentially deadly.

According to the advisory: "Health Canada is advising Canadians not to purchase or use electronic smoking products, as these products may pose health risks and have not been fully evaluated for safety, quality and efficacy by Health Canada. ... Although these electronic smoking products may be marketed as a safer alternative to conventional tobacco products and, in some cases, as an aid to quitting smoking, electronic smoking products may pose risks such as nicotine poisoning and addiction. ... Canadians who have used e-cigarette products and are concerned about their health should consult with a health care practitioner."

The Rest of the Story
I have to hand it to Health Canada: this is about as absurd and hypocritical an action that I have seen taken by a government health agency in a long time.

Apparently, Health Canada has deemed that electronic cigarettes -- which have little if any known risks -- pose such a risk to the health of smokers that they need to issue an advisory not to use the products, but the same concern does not hold for actual cigarettes, which are known to cause serious diseases and even death among many Canadian smokers.

Electronic cigarettes contain nicotine and may pose a risk of nicotine addiction and therefore smokers must be warned not to use these products. However, actual cigarettes - which also contain nicotine but also contain numerous other toxic chemicals and carcinogens - do not pose a risk serious enough that Health Canada opts to ask smokers not to buy or use those products.

Smokers who are using e-cigarettes should call their doctors immediately to inquire about their health effects. But smokers who are using traditional cigarettes need not discuss the health effects with their doctors. They should just continue to smoke without worrying about the health risks. After all, at least the health risks of their products have been very well-studied and well-documented.

What is the terrible concern that Health Canada has? Are they afraid that smokers might actually switch to these tar-free, smoke-free products and drastically reduce their risk of debilitating disease and death? Are they afraid that these electronic cigarettes might just be a much more effective method of nicotine replacement and successful quitting than pharmaceutical products? Are there afraid that these e-cigarettes might displace sales of pharmaceutical company-produced nicotine replacement products?

It is difficult to understand the source of the hypocrisy and absurdity here, but let me offer two possibilities:

First, it strikes me that there is such a strong relationship between tobacco control and Big Pharma that tobacco control agencies within a national health department might actually feel threatened by the possibility that pharmaceutical smoking cessation products might be displaced by non-pharmaceutical products.

Second, it strikes me that there is a tremendous abstinence-only mindset in tobacco control that isn't capable of even entertaining the possibility that harm could be reduced by a product that is called a cigarette. The very fact that the product is in the form of a cigarette is simply intolerable to many tobacco control advocates. It is not truly the health of smokers that is of concern; it is the act of smoking that is bothersome and unacceptable. So even if that smoking were to save thousands of lives, it is not a viable option. Better that people should use the traditional products and die then switch to a product which has not been fully studied but which is probably much safer.

This is really an ugly situation because if Health Canada does follow through with its threat to remove e-cigarettes from the market, it is going to result in a tremendous disservice to the public's health. Many smokers who would otherwise have been exposed only to nicotine are going to switch back to cigarettes and thus be exposed to not only nicotine, but all the other toxins and carcinogens in tobacco smoke.

The vision of tobacco control practitioners appears to be so clouded by concerns other than health that it is resulting in jaw-dropping absurdity and hypocrisy in public health.

(Thanks to Paul Bergen for the tip).

No comments: