May 31 every year is World No Tobacco Day, an event that is sponsored by the World Health Organization. WHO uses the day to highlight the dangers of tobacco products and to persuade governments to implement strict anti-tobacco measures. But some governments are restricting e-cigarettes along with tobacco products, even going so far as to label them as tobacco products though they actually contain no tobacco. The head of WHO tobacco control believes that e-cigarettes are “a force for good,” but many countries persist in making it difficult for smokers to have access to this potentially life-saving alternative.
Dr. Derek Yach, who in addition to his positions at WHO is the Chief Health Officer of the Vitality Institute, wrote in 2015 about the benefits of e-cigarettes to the health of smokers and to the public health. He criticized governments that take a traditional approach of regulation and taxation on all tobacco products and fail to recognize the benefits of less harmful tobacco products like e-cigarettes. Dr. Yach accused governments of taxing e-cigarettes because they fear losing revenue as tobacco cigarette sales decline.
Many health experts like Dr. Yach agree that smokers should be encouraged to switch to e-cigarettes, and some say there is evidence that e-cigarettes simply work better as a smoking cessation aid than pharmaceutical products like nicotine gum and patches. The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians has stated that not only is vaping better for smokers, but that “large-scale” use of e-cigarettes and other non-tobacco nicotine products could prevent “all” of the harm that smoking does to society. That is a very bold statement, and it comes from a highly respected society of physicians, yet most people have never heard it and are instead hearing unproven claims of harm from e-cigarettes by governments and agencies that are supposed to be concerned with people’s health.
Part of the problem is that some anti-smokers believe firmly that quitting cold turkey is the only acceptable solution to the smoking problem. This contingent of anti-smokers doesn’t want to see people switching to e-cigarettes, in fact, some of the extremists don’t even approve of the use of nicotine gums and patches. But most experts who believe in the potential of e-cigarettes to improve health believe in the theory of harm reduction, which is basically the belief that something less dangerous is always better than something with more danger. Harm-reduction advocates understand that complete abstinence is not always possible. They not allowing smokers to have alternatives available won’t help them quit smoking, but it will prevent them from quitting or even reducing their smoking and the harm that comes with it.
While much of the evidence at this point is anecdotal, there is no doubt that many smokers have been able to greatly cut down on cigarette use or quit using cigarettes altogether by switching to e-cigarettes. Many former smokers report failure with pharmaceutical products; gums, patched and prescription drugs including Chantix, which has dangers of its own including depression and suicidal thoughts as possible side effects.
The U.S. government does not allow e-cigarette sellers to even mention to their customers that e-cigarettes might help them to quit smoking. But doctors are allowed to tell their patients this, and fortunately, many do. Some doctors not only speak as medical experts, but also as former smokers. One of them, Africa’s Dr. Daniel Malan, is a believer in harm reduction. He is conducting research for the Africa Harm Reduction Alliance and has found studies from New Zealand – a country that recently overturned its ban on nicotine e-cigarettes – that shows that e-cigarettes are more effective at helping smokers quit than nicotine replacement therapy products from pharmacies.
Dr. Yach sums it up by saying that when smokers can’t or won’t quit nicotine altogether, they should be encouraged to switch to less harmful products. Despite his longstanding position as an anti-smoking advocate and his admitted distrust of tobacco companies, Dr. Yach knows that e-cigarettes do help people quit smoking and says that the evidence of this should not be ignored.