For months, I have been arguing that the major anti-tobacco groups in the United States have been waging a war against electronic cigarettes that is motivated not by a pure concern for the public's health, but by an ideological opposition to the idea that anyone could get pleasure from nicotine in whatever form -- even if they are improving their health and saving their life.
Today, the American Thoracic Society (ATS) made it official.
In a letter to the editor published in the Washington Post, the American Thoracic Society confirmed what I have been suggesting for months.
The vice chair of the American Thoracic Society’s Tobacco Action Committee essentially confirmed that the ATS is willing to throw away the lives of smokers in order to promote the radical ideology that no one should derive pleasure from nicotine in any form, even if it is a life-saving switch from deadly cigarettes to very low-risk e-cigarettes.
In the letter, Dr. Enid Neptune writes: "As a physician who treats patients devastated by tobacco-caused lung disease, I was concerned by the Aug. 5 editorial “Breaking nicotine’s grip,”
which embraced Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott
Gottlieb’s plan for regulating tobacco products. The commissioner seems
unconcerned about switching one form of nicotine addiction with another.
Nicotine in any form is bad for your health, adversely affecting
neurological and cardiovascular systems and reproductive health.
Evidence shows that nicotine can be a gateway drug. ... The
FDA’s job is to protect youths from all types of tobacco and nicotine
addiction, not to negotiate which types of nicotine addiction it will
The title of the letter is: "The FDA’s new plans could just switch one form of nicotine addiction with another."
The Rest of the Story
The writer makes a great point. We should never promote the idea of people switching from one addiction to another. And it is not the concern of public health what health risks are associated with any form of addiction. All addiction is bad and our job in public health is to make sure that no one, anywhere, at any time, is addicted to any substance.
For example, when heroin addicts are treated with methadone or bupenorphine, the physician is just substituting one addiction for another. These physicians seem unconcerned about switching one form of nicotine addiction with another. Opiates in any form are bad for your health, adversely affecting neurological and cardiovascular systems and reproductive health. Evidence shows that opiates can be a gateway drug and there is a great risk of overdose with any opiate. The job of physicians is to protect people from all types of opiate addiction, not to negotiate which types of opiate addiction they will allow.
OK - I was being facetious. But this demonstrates the insanity of the argument that the e-cigarette industry should be decimated through burdensome regulations because vaping is just another form of nicotine addiction and all nicotine addiction is equally evil.
I, and fortunately the new FDA Commissioner, strongly reject this radical ideology. Risk does matter. Addiction is a public health problem not because the concept of someone being addicted to a substance is severely damaging, but because the addictive substance carries severe health risks. Switching from a high-risk addictive substance to a low-risk addictive substance is not a zero-sum game. It is a critical and life-saving intervention. Just as methadone maintenance programs have saved thousands of lives from heroin-associated morbidity and mortality, electronic cigarettes are saving thousands of lives from smoking-associated disease and death.
While this writer speaks only for the American Thoracic Society, it is clear to me that this is indeed the underlying philosophy of all the major anti-tobacco groups, and even of many health departments and agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health departments in California, Vermont, and Washington (to name a few).
Fortunately, Commissioner Gottlieb has rejected this philosophy, strongly and definitively. Public health is about saving lives, not fighting for some ideological principle of no addiction to any substance, regardless of how low-risk the product might be or how the product might be saving a life by switching someone to a much safer form of drug delivery.
Of course we need to restrict the sale and marketing of vaping products to youth and educate them about the health risks of all types of nicotine products, including real cigarettes and fake ones. But discouraging youth from using e-cigarettes should not come at the expense of wiping out 99% of the e-cigarette market, depriving millions of former smokers of the product they are using successfully to stay off tobacco cigarettes, and risking tens of thousands of these former smokers returning to cigarette smoking because their vaping products are taken off the market.