The FDA Is Set To Unintentionally Push Quitters Back to Smoking
The week ahead will be hugely consequential for the future of tobacco and nicotine in the United States. On September 9, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must meet a court-imposed deadline to decide which electronic cigarette and vapor products will be allowed to remain on the market. The agency’s decisions will affect more than just the livelihoods of small business owners and big vaping companies; at stake are the rights of millions of current and former smokers to access a safer alternative that could literally save their lives.
American news coverage of vaping has tended to focus on its downsides, particularly the use of e-cigarettes among teens and adolescents. Legislators and activist groups have raised the alarm about youth vaping to encourage the FDA to enact de facto prohibition of flavored products. In the popular imagination, vaping seduces youth into dangerous addiction and renormalizes tobacco use, justifying bans on the sale of e-cigarettes even to adults.
The story is considerably more nuanced among experts in the field of tobacco control.
Advocates of harm reduction do not dismiss genuine concerns over youth use of nicotine products, but they also focus on the long-term goal of preventing deaths caused by smoking. They note that the best available evidence suggests that vaping is far safer than smoking cigarettes, that it is more effective than nicotine patches or gums at helping smokers quit, and that the health benefits of encouraging smokers to switch outweigh the harms of vaping under almost all circumstances.
Kenneth Warner and David Mendez, both of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, illustrated this in a study last year that simulated 360 different scenarios for how vaping could impact American health through the end of the century. In 99 percent of those scenarios, the outcomes were positive for life-years saved. Similarly, modeling published by David Levy of Georgetown University and other researchers in the journal Tobacco Control projects that widespread switching from smoking to vaping would prevent between 1.6 million and 6.6 million premature deaths by 2100.
That transition to lower-risk sources of nicotine will only occur if smokers are provided with accurate information about vaping and if adults are allowed to buy products appealing enough to compete with cigarettes. Unfortunately, alarmist news coverage and prohibitive policies are consistently failing smokers. The situation is sufficiently dire that Warner and 14 other prominent experts in tobacco control, all of them past presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, issued a joint article in August warning that the opportunity to save lives through harm reduction may be missed.
“We believe the potential lifesaving benefits of e-cigarettes for adult smokers deserve attention equal to the risks to youths,” they wrote in the American Journal of
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