A few days ago, I came across a 2017 TEDMED talk on the harm reduction model of drug addiction by Dr Mark Tyndall.

Although mainly focused on drug addiction treatment, the speech provides a valuable insight into the nature of harm reduction that can be applied more generally. In particular, that concerns vaping as a cessation tool.

In the talk, Dr Tyndall argues that “starting with abstinence is like asking a new diabetic to quit sugar or a severe asthmatic to start running marathons or a depressed person to just be happy. For any other medical condition, we would never start with the most extreme option. What makes us think that strategy would work for something as complex as addiction?”

Taxes, marketing and advertising bans along with other restrictions on both tobacco and vaping products pursue a strategy of abstinence. Based on the assumption that smokers can quit overnight after they see a price increase, the reality is that such policies do nothing to reduce smoking rates. Advocates of such an approach point to the declining smoking rates as evidence of their success. However, the causation link is hardly traceable there because of multiple variables at play. 

Although smoking rates in tobacco in vaping restrictive countries such as Ireland, really are declining, it is hardly a reason for optimism. The downward trend in smoking prevalence is driven by people who are dying prematurely from smoking, according to Dr Tyndall. Vaping, on the contrary, could save those lives, and discouraging it is ignorant of consumers’ needs.

Blinded by their pursuit of smoke-free Europe, European policymakers are consistently missing the opportunity to actually help smokers quit. We at the Consumer Choice Center have stressed many times the data point that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than tobacco cigarettes and that it targets adult consumers who seek to quit smoking. E-cigarettes are an adult-only product and do not serve as a means to entice underage smoking. Although scientifically proved, these facts are overlooked by the EU. 

As such, the flawed belief that vaping contributes to rising underage smoking rates casts a shadow on harm reduction. It is also one of the main reasons underlying the proposed Dutch vape flavour ban. A 2017 study published in Tobacco Control found that as the number of vapers in the US and UK went up, there was no increase in youth smoking. Between 2011 and 2016, smoking in the past 30 days declined from 6.3 percent to 4.3 percent among middle school students and from 21.8 percent to 13.8 percent among high school students in the US.

Overregulation of vaping in the European Union and its member states won’t bring the expected results. Smokers should not be seen as children who have to be punished into abstinence for choosing to smoke. A much better way forward is to encourage them to switch to vaping thereby helping them reduce health associated risks. 

Before it’s too late, we should strongly commit to the concept of harm reduction. Now, that would really help us beat cancer.

Originally published here.



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