In the fourth season of the popular show Mad Men, creative advertising executive Donald Draper pens a page-long ad in the New York Times explaining why he’s “quit tobacco.” A long time creative force in pushing cigarettes in popular media, he decides he’s had a change of heart when it comes to the dangerous effects of tobacco, promising to cut ties with the industry in hopes of ginning up new business.
Were Draper a real-life figure in 2019, I have no doubt he’d favor vaping and e-cigarettes over traditional cigarettes. And it’d be smart business.
Simply put, the technological revolution that is happening today with vaping is giving people a less harmful alternative to consume nicotine, the stimulant alkaloid that smokers are actually addicted to. That’s something to celebrate.
This week, Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that vaping must be kept out of the hands of kids but preserved as a tool for smokers to quit. And one would hope his message would go further.
However, due to a very smart public relations campaign undertaken by public health groups and international bodies, nicotine, rather than conventional tobacco, has been made the enemy.
And in making nicotine the enemy, they’ve neglected the fact that adult smokers are switching en masse to these new reduced-risk products, which are more effective than pharmaceutical alternatives.
The fight to limit tobacco consumption is indeed a noble one, and one that we should all support. But demonizing all methods of nicotine delivery, especially the less harmful ones, is counterproductive. Nicotine is not the enemy.
Yes, it is addictive and not healthy for our kids’ brain development. But as researchers have discovered, isolated from tobacco, nicotine for adults is a great stimulant for memory, concentration, and is proving effective at reducing the risk of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease in some trials. More research will yield more, but nicotine’s association with tobacco smoking has made scientists cautious.
Less than 14% of adults are now smokers, the lowest rate ever recorded. And while 4.4% of adults, close to 11 million, are now using vaping devices, that number would be much higher were it not for tepid endorsements by health bodies.
Our own Food and Drug Administration has wavered on the topic, providing no real direction or strategy apart from elevating teen experimentation with vaping as an “epidemic”. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb made it his crusade during his short tenure, despite his current statements. This coincides with the lowest teen smoking rates in recorded history.
The latest CDC figures show that 20.8% of high schoolers have vaped at least once in the last 30 days. But 7-8% of those were vaping cannabis rather than nicotine.
No doubt, we would prefer our youth not try any of these products, but would we consider anyone who ever smoked a joint once a “regular” user of cannabis? I don’t think so. And the same who apply to those who experiment with vaping.
We should not tolerate teen vaping, but we cannot at the same time deprive millions of adult smokers of alternatives. The same lessons have been learned from the counter-productive prohibition of alcohol in the 20th century.
What’s more, the World Health Organization and other public bodies provide almost no nuance between tobacco and e-cigarettes. When I asked officials at the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) about this distinction, they said vaping products are tobacco products, plain and simple.
All this stands against the established recommendations and findings of national health bodies around the world, including Public Health England, the New Zealand Ministry of Health, and Health Canada. The UK’s top health body has repeatedly said that vaping and e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than smoking.
With all this in mind, there is more we can do to stop youth vaping and preserve this technology as a tool for adults to quit tobacco.
Let’s enforce existing laws. Nearly half of tobacco and vape shops don’t ID young customers. This perpetuates the problem and has turned the public against vaping for consenting adults trying to improve their life expectancy.
And let’s educate people about the effects of nicotine. Both the positive for some and the overwhelmingly negative for developing minds.
If we uphold our laws and continue education, perhaps then people will learn that combustion and smoking of tobacco, not nicotine, is the enemy.