We are on the cusp of a radical transformation in the way our society uses tobacco. Cigarette consumption is in substantial, protracted decline as tobacco consumers switch to smoke-free products like smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes.
This isn't America's first large-scale change in tobacco habits; in the early 1900s, cigarettes replaced chewing tobacco. This is, however, the first shift with a promising public health outcome. The reason is simple science: Smoke-free tobacco and nicotine products are around 98 percent safer than traditional cigarettes.
The evidence has been mounting for a long time. I published my first scientific studies on vastly safer smoke-free cigarette substitutes almost 20 years ago. Britain's Royal College of Physicians, one of the world's oldest and most prestigious medical societies, reported in 2002: "As a way of using nicotine, the consumption of non-combustible [smokeless] tobacco is on the order of 10-1,000 times less hazardous than smoking, depending on the product." The report continued with an even bolder statement, acknowledging that some smokeless manufacturers may want to market their products "as a 'harm reduction' option for nicotine users, and they may find support for that in the public health community."
In 2007, the Royal College challenged governments to consider "...that smokers smoke predominantly for nicotine, that nicotine itself is not especially hazardous, and that if nicotine could be provided in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved."
Big tobacco companies are already adapting to the demand for smoke-free tobacco. Altria, the largest American cigarette manufacturer, will sell e-cigarettes throughout Indiana in August. Number two Reynolds American believes that "governments, public health officials, tobacco manufacturers and others share a responsibility to provide adult tobacco consumers with accurate information about the various health risks and comparative risks associated with the use of different tobacco and nicotine products." Reynolds sells Snus, a smokeless tobacco product that has produced an extraordinarily low smoking rate in Sweden, under its flagship Camel brand. Reynolds also introduced dissolvable tobacco products, and it owns a pharmaceutical company that sells nicotine gum. In July Reynolds will start selling its Vuse e-cigarettes in Colorado.
Lorillard, the nation's third largest cigarette maker, is taking an aggressive smoke-free posture in the public policy arena as it promotes its Blu e-cigarette brand. Lorillard CEO Murray Kessler wrote, "We see e-cigarettes as a product that has the potential to play a critical role in the national harm reduction discussion and affords our company a seat at the table in this debate."
Sadly, the potential of tobacco harm reduction is threatened by opposition from many major medical organizations and government agencies. Obsessed with a myopic vision of a tobacco-free society, they have transformed a legitimate war on smoking into a moral crusade against tobacco, a mistake that was tragically made with alcohol almost 100 years ago.
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Congress has prohibited tobacco marketers from any communication with smokers regarding safer alternatives without the express approval of the FDA. So far, the agency has taken a hard line, claiming, falsely, that, "To date, no tobacco products have been scientifically proven to reduce risk of tobacco-related disease, improve safety or cause less harm than other tobacco products." The agency is defying a key element of its stated mission - "to provide the American public with factual and accurate information about tobacco products."
In an effort to kill the nascent smoke-free market, the FDA is slow-walking development of necessary regulations. In March 2012, it signaled the extraordinary lengths that companies will have to go to in order to have a product accepted as "modified [i.e., reduced] risk. In essence, the agency will require dozens of new studies on minute product details and human effects, which will likely take a decade or more.
This is regulatory fundamentalism, a bureaucratic maze that will condemn e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products, and therefore tobacco harm reduction, to purgatory. With this delay, cigarettes will continue to dominate the American tobacco market, and 440,000 more Americans will die from smoking-related disease every year.
One thousand two hundred and five deaths. Every. Single. Day.
The body of highly credible research and roster of public health experts endorsing tobacco harm reduction continues to grow, providing more science-based support for smokers to switch. In the absence of rational FDA regulation, nicotine-addicted smokers would do well to quit cigarettes and avail themselves of the many smoke-free harm reduction products that are currently on the market.