Some tobacco control activists are so blinded by a commitment to destroy the tobacco industry that they cannot see the potential of a life-saving harm reduction alternative, e-cigarettes. Their absurd advocacy, which allows the widespread availability of the most dangerous consumer product ever invented while effectively banning a much safer substitute, defies logic and will only protect the incumbent cigarette trade.
This was the key message of Colin Mendelsohn in his commentary published in the June 28, 2017 issue of leading Australian newspaper TheSydney Morning Herald. His scathing criticism was directed at tobacco control activists who want to retain Australia’s existing tobacco regulatory framework, which prevents the use of e-cigarettes (“vapes). A federal parliamentary inquiry on e-cigarettes is under way and a Senate inquiry is set to begin based on a bill on e-cigarettes submitted recently to the Australian Senate.
Mendelsohn is a tobacco treatment specialist who helps smokers to quit smoking, teaches health professionals, has participated in many research studies on how to quit smoking, and has published many articles in peer-reviewed medical journals. An Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales, he is a member of the committee that develops the Australian national smoking cessation guidelines and is the immediate past Vice President of the Australian Association of Smoking Cessation Professionals, Australia’s top body of experts in the field of smoking cessation.
“Policy should be based on evidence, not fear mongering, exaggeration, misrepresentation of evidence and rhetoric. Most importantly, any assessment of vaping should be compared with the risks of smoking, which vaping is designed to replace,” Mendelsohn writes.
Mendelsohn’s hard-hitting commentary came out two weeks after local consumer groups denounced as “irresponsible and grossly inaccurate” the statements of Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial who said that e-cigarettes contain the same chemicals used in cigarettes and can lead to more serious addiction to tobacco.
The Vapers Philippines and the Philippine E-Cigarette Industry Association (PECIA) slammed the Health Secretary for blindly following the World Health Organization’s opposition to tobacco harm reduction without even considering the growing body of evidence supporting e-cigarettes as a less harmful alternative to conventional cigarettes. The consumer groups urged the Department of Health to consider the current available evidence on e-cigarettes, which can help inform the government’s anti-smoking policies.
Mendelsohn stressed that e-cigarettes have only a tiny fraction of the risk of smoking, noting that it is well known that almost all the harm from smoking is caused by the products of combustion, which are absent from vaping. He described claims that the widely accepted view that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful than smoking is based on guesswork as “a misrepresentation of the comprehensive reviews by Public Health England and the UK Royal College of Physicians, which arrived at this estimate after reviewing the published scientific evidence including chemical analysis of e-cigarette vapor, toxins measured in users and clinical trials.”
According to the Royal College of Physicians, available data suggest that the health risks posed by e-cigarettes are unlikely to exceed 5 percent of those associated with smoked tobacco products, and may well be substantially lower than this figure. Public Health England concluded that the levels of toxins in e-cigarette vapor are substantially lower than those in cigarette smoke and “there is no doubt that smokers who switch to vaping reduce the risks to their health dramatically”.
Mendelsohn also cited the Eurobarometer survey released in 2016, which showed that more than six million smokers in the European Union (EU) have quit smoking and more than 9 million have reduced smoking consumption through the use of e-cigarettes. Eurobarometer assessed, among others, smoking and e-cigarette use patterns in all 28 member-states of the EU. According to Mendelsohn, e-cigarettes are now the most popular smoking cessation aid in the United Kingdom and United States.
Another oft-repeated argument utilized by groups opposed to tobacco harm reduction is that widespread e-cigarette availability should not be permitted until long-term safety data is available. Going by this impossible standard, Mendelsohn writes, no new drug or treatment would be allowed until 20 or 30 years of continuous testing. “While we do not yet know everything about [e-cigarettes], we know enough to be sure they are much safer than smoking. Just like with new medicines, decisions to market products are based on the best available [but] inevitably incomplete evidence. We should act on what we know now [and] not be paralyzed by unrealistic expectations.”
Traditional tobacco control strategies have served Australia well for many years, according to Mendelsohn. However, he noted that for the first time adult smoking rates in Australia have stalled over the last three years, while continuing to decline in other countries where e-cigarettes are widely available. “Innovative solutions like e-cigarettes are now required to kick start progress once again.”