Monday, May 11, 2009

On the Absurdity of the Anti-Smoking Groups' Position on Electronic Cigarettes

The major national anti-smoking organizations - including the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids - have called for the removal of electronic cigarettes from the market. In their statement, these groups take issue with claims that these products are safer than cigarettes and that they can help people to quit smoking.

The Rest of the Story

The position of these anti-smoking groups is an absurd one, and it demonstrates that they are not really about protecting the public's health after all. If health were the concern, then why would these groups prefer that people smoke conventional cigarettes -- which contain thousands of chemicals and more than 60 carcinogens -- rather than electronic cigarettes, which deliver the nicotine without any of these chemicals and carcinogens?

The absurdity of these groups' position was summarized best by Jacob Sullum, who described it as follows:

"Telling smokers they may not use e-cigarettes until they're approved by the FDA is like telling a floundering swimmer not to climb aboard a raft because it might have a leak."

Sullum's description of the situation is a perfect one.

There are only two mitigating factors that would give legitimacy to the public health groups' position. One is if the use of electronic cigarettes was preventing smokers from quitting smoking. In other words, if smokers who otherwise would have quit entirely were using these products. However, there is no evidence that this is the case. Instead, it appears that electronic cigarettes are helping smokers -- who would otherwise continue to smoke conventional cigarettes -- to keep off cigarettes.

The other mitigating factor would be if nonsmokers were starting to use electronic cigarettes. Again, there is no evidence that this is the case. Electronic cigarettes are clearly being marketed to smokers and there is no evidence that nonsmokers are using these products.

The health groups' questioning of the validity of the claim that electronic cigarettes are safer than conventional ones shows the lack of a role that science plays in the modern day tobacco control movement. Stating that we can't draw such a conclusion until the FDA fully studies the product sounds like something the tobacco industry would have said 50 years ago about the evidence that cigarette smoking is harmful.

The health groups' questioning of the validity of the claim that electronic cigarettes can help people to quit smoking shows an ignorance of the hundreds of testimonials coming from e-cigarette users.

What seems to be behind the anti-smoking groups' concerns is more an ideological opposition to the theoretical idea of a cigarette-like product than any legitimate health concern. The rest of the story is that scientific integrity and health itself are losing out to ideology in the modern-day tobacco control movement.

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