Harm reduction, not policing, will boost public health in Alabama

By: Elizabeth Hicks & Stephen Kent

In a landmark move earlier this year, Alabama state lawmakers passed first-of-its-kind legislation effectively outlawing the use of cigarettes and vaping products in vehicles when a child 14 years of age or younger is present. That law is now in effect statewide. While the intent behind this legislation is undoubtedly noble, the treatment of vaping and smoking as equals is going to cause real harm in Alabama. This will not go the way lawmakers think. 

The idea of the new law is simple. Adults should not be subjecting young children to cigarette smoke and adversely impacting their health when the kids have no say in the matter. Smoking, after all, is a choice that adult consumers make for themselves. 

Older folks who grew up in the heyday of cigarette smoking often share some memories of being in smokey cars with the windows rolled up, toughing it out at a time when smokers weren’t widely aware of the hazard posed by second-hand smoke to their passengers. That time is past. 

Acknowledging this fact, we have to all ask ourselves what protection is owed to young passengers in the car with smokers, and also what kind of laws will reduce harm for both children and their parent/guardian in the driver’s seat. Alabama Representative Rolanda Hollis made an effort to address this in HB3, but the law’s failure to make distinctions between cigarettes and vape products which have been shown to be 95% less harmful than traditional cigarettes, is not going to be a net benefit to public health. 

Alabama is a state that sees a staggering number of smoking-related fatalities, close to 8,600 deaths annually, along with nearly $309 million in Medicaid costs incurred by the state. Reducing these harms is important, and it should start with incentivizing cigarette smokers to switch. Passing laws that insinuate the two products are equally harmful reads to a smoker as an excuse to keep on with the product they’re accustomed to. Switching can be hard, but the potential for small social benefits like not being kicked to the curb every time you want to smoke is one of those things that makes the switch to vaping easier. The same goes for smokers behind the steering wheel. 

Harm reduction strategies work. There is little evidence, however, to show that punitive measures like $100 fines for smoking in the car whilst parenting is going to be a boon to public health in states like Alabama. 

As is well known, cigarettes contain a harmful cocktail of chemicals and tar, which contribute to respiratory diseases and cancer. These components are not present in the vapor produced by e-cigarettes.  Toxicologist Igor Burstyn of Drexel University noted that the contents of e-cig vapor “justifies surveillance,” but that exhaled vapor contains so little contamination that the risk to bystanders is insignificant. This has been supported by Public Health England’s updated review of evidence in 2018. 

Tacking financial penalties to vaping in the car, even with the windows down and fresh air flowing in, smacks of the early days of COVID-19 alarmism when police were arresting people for being outside at public beaches or doing watersports. When it comes to vaping, the level of risk and the effort that will be required to police the activity, just don’t line up. 

Yes, nicotine fuels both products in question, and there’s no getting away from its addictive qualities for the smoker. If the Heart of Dixie wants to lead the way in protecting public health, it is never too late to embrace harm reduction strategies when it comes to smoking. 

Elizabeth Hicks is the U.S. Affairs Analyst and Stephen Kent is the Media Director for the Consumer Choice Center



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