Time to embrace the potential of e-cigarettes

If every smoker switched to e-cigarettes tomorrow, that would represent a tremendous public health victory, writes Rob Breakenridge.
If every smoker switched to e-cigarettes tomorrow, that would represent a tremendous public health victory, writes Rob Breakenridge. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File

The timing was purely coincidental, but just as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was announcing a major change in direction on e-cigarettes, new research confirmed once again, just how powerful the harm reduction benefits of vaping really are.

And as Canada inches closer to new federal regulations for e-cigarettes, we need to ensure that we recognize and embrace this potential and not lump vaping in with tobacco smoking or do anything to discourage smokers from making the switch.

The FDA had been expected to unveil tough new regulations for e-cigarettes, but instead, has delayed those regulations and indicated a willingness to embrace e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool. This is a hugely significant — and welcome — shift.

That announcement came just two days after the publication of a major new study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). Researchers found that increased e-cigarette use coincided with a significant increase in the number of people quitting smoking. One of the lead authors of the study noted that “smokers who also used e-cigarettes were more likely to attempt to quit smoking, and more likely to succeed.”

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This builds on the growing body of evidence about the effectiveness of vaping when it comes to helping smokers kick the habit. And frankly, if every smoker switched to e-cigarettes tomorrow, that would represent a tremendous public health victory. Let’s not lose sight of that.

Back here in Canada, the government’s proposed Bill S-5 is making its way through the legislative process, having just completed the committee report stage in the Senate.

The law would make a number of changes to both the Tobacco Act and the Non-Smokers’ Health Act — mandating plain packaging for cigarettes, for example — and that will include a litany of new regulations for e-cigarettes. Sales to minors would be banned, in addition to new rules around ingredients, labelling and advertising.

WATCH: Study suggests underage teens can easily buy e-cigarettes

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Study suggests underage teens can easily buy e-cigarettes

Regulations aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but not all regulations are created the same. What matters is the goal of these regulations, and clearly, our goal ought to be framed around harm reduction.

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The government seems to acknowledge this potential and how e-cigarettes represent a “likely less harmful reduction to tobacco use.” However, concern has been raised about some of the provisions of Bill S-5.

As the Canadian Constitution Foundation has noted, the bill restricts manufacturers and retailers of e-cigarettes from communicating those benefits directly to customers. References to vaping as harm reduction or even citing peer-reviewed research on the matter could run afoul of the legislation.

Why would we want to stand in the way of ensuring smokers have access to this information? There’s certainly a need to counter the message from some anti-smoking groups who are clinging to the idea that e-cigarettes are no better than smoking or, at best, a gateway to tobacco use. If smokers hear those messages, there’s little incentive for them to make the switch.

However, we now have all kinds of evidence as to why we would want to push them in that direction. It’s clear that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than tobacco, and as smoking rates continue to fall among all age groups, it’s become abundantly clear that the so-called “gateway effect” is a myth.

Last year, the U.K. Royal College of Physicians released a major report calling on governments to embrace the potential that e-cigarettes offer, noting that “harm reduction has huge potential to prevent death and disability from tobacco use, and to hasten our progress to a tobacco-free society.”

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As such, they conclude that “in the interests of public health, it is important to promote the use of e-cigarettes, NRT (nicotine replacement therapy) and other non-tobacco nicotine products as widely as possible as a substitute for smoking in the U.K.”

That’s even more true today. If governments are serious about further reductions in smoking rates, they need to heed this advice.

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