Earlier this year, the Tennessee Department of Health updated its e-cigarettes advisory with “new risks” including the risk of death, nicotine dependence and exposure to harmful chemicals. What the report failed to do was provide the public with perspective that would help Tennesseans to make well-informed choices to improve their health.
In its advisory, the state health department compared the addictiveness of nicotine with that of heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. It’s a not so subtle — and completely wrong — suggestion that nicotine is as dangerous as heroin and cocaine.
The department cites a litany of scary-sounding chemicals that may be found in vapor from e-cigarettes. Dihydrogen monoxide, for example, may sound menacing, but it’s water. None of the chemicals listed in the advisory have been found in vapor products at doses that pose a risk to health.
This diversion is bad for the public because smokers should know that replacing traditional cigarettes with vaping can dramatically reduce exposure to dangerous chemicals. Smokers who are scared away from vaping by misleading advice from health officials may continue to smoke and face the potential illnesses and death that can come along with it.
E-cigarettes contain no tobacco and don’t produce smoke. Various e-cigarette products may look different, but they heat a liquid solution of nicotine and flavor to produce an aerosol. They’re designed to replicate smoking without the deadly smoke.
Nicotine replacement therapies, like gum and patches, operate similarly. They provide smokers with the nicotine they crave without the toxic smoke. Gums and patches have been approved “quit methods” of health departments for years. Unfortunately, they fail over 90 percent of the time because they don’t deliver nicotine sufficiently to satisfy smokers and they fail to incorporate the physical behavior of smoking, something that’s often integral to the habit.
When it comes to the health impacts of e-cigarettes, a report from one of the oldest medical societies in the world, the Royal College of Physicians, offers a very different view than the state health department. That’s the same Royal College that preceded the 1964 U.S. Surgeon General report on smoking and health by two years. In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians issued a 200-page report based on the credible “science, public policy, regulation and ethics surrounding e-cigarettes.”
Professor John Britton, who chaired the study, said, “Smokers should be reassured that these products can help them quit all tobacco use forever.”
Royal College President Jane Dacre added that e-cigarettes should be viewed as a way to save lives, “For all the potential risks involved, harm reduction has huge potential to prevent death and disability from tobacco use.”
Health experts have understood for decades that people are drawn to cigarettes for nicotine, but it’s smoke that kills them. Nicotine doesn’t cause the lung cancer that kills smokers. Once removed from smoking, nicotine doesn’t pose a significant health risk at all. What separates nicotine from another widely consumed and similar chemical, caffeine, is largely the way the chemicals are consumed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly half a million Americans die from smoking every year. No one suggests that e-cigarettes are without risk, but vapor products can dramatically reduce smoking deaths. By failing to offer the whole story in its advisory, the Tennessee Health Department becomes part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.