The New York Times looks at the e-cigarette debate:
A team led by Riccardo Polosa of the University of Catania recruited 40 hard-core smokers — ones who had turned down a free spot in a smoking-cessation program — and simply gave them a gadget already available in stores for $50. This electronic cigarette, or e-cigarette, contains a small reservoir of liquid nicotine solution that is vaporized to form an aerosol mist.
The user “vapes,” or puffs on the vapor, to get a hit of the addictive nicotine (and the familiar sensation of bringing a cigarette to one’s mouth) without the noxious substances found in cigarette smoke.
After six months, more than half the subjects in Dr. Polosa’s experiment had cut their regular cigarette consumption by at least 50 percent. Nearly a quarter had stopped altogether. Though this was just a small pilot study, the results fit with other encouraging evidence and bolster hopes that these e-cigarettes could be the most effective tool yet for reducing the global death toll from smoking.
Good news. But wait . . .
But there’s a powerful group working against this innovation — and it’s not Big Tobacco. It’s a coalition of government officials and antismoking groups who have been warning about the dangers of e-cigarettes and trying to ban their sale.
The controversy is part of a long-running philosophical debate about public health policy, but with an odd role reversal. In the past, conservatives have leaned toward “abstinence only” policies for dealing with problems like teenage pregnancy and heroin addiction, while liberals have been open to “harm reduction” strategies like encouraging birth control and dispensing methadone.
When it comes to nicotine, though, the abstinence forces tend to be more liberal, including Democratic officials at the state and national level who have been trying to stop the sale of e-cigarettes and ban their use in smoke-free places. They’ve argued that smokers who want an alternative source of nicotine should use only thoroughly tested products like Nicorette gum and prescription patches — and use them only briefly, as a way to get off nicotine altogether.
The article points out that the FDA has warned that there are traces of harmful and possibly toxic substances in e-cigarette vapor, but . . .
…the agency has never presented evidence that the trace amounts actually cause any harm, and it has neglected to mention that similar traces of these chemicals have been found in other F.D.A.-approved products, including nicotine patches and gum. The agency’s methodology and warnings have been lambasted in scientific journals by Dr. Polosa and other researchers, including Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Writing in Harm Reduction Journal this year, Dr. Rodu concludes that the F.D.A.’s results “are highly unlikely to have any possible significance to users” because it detected chemicals at “about one million times lower concentrations than are conceivably related to human health.” His conclusion is shared by Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
“It boggles my mind why there is a bias against e-cigarettes among antismoking groups,” Dr. Siegel said. He added that it made no sense to fret about hypothetical risks from minuscule levels of several chemicals in e-cigarettes when the alternative is known to be deadly: cigarettes containing thousands of chemicals, including dozens of carcinogens and hundreds of toxins.
The analogy to abstinence-only sex education is spot-on. And it’s more evidence that the public health fanatics on the left can be just as ideology-driven and anti-science as the moral crusaders on the right. Of course if you’ve been following the medical marijuana debate, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the FDA would let politics and fearmongering trump science. And on that issue, left and right are guilty.