Over the past five years, interest in tobacco harm reduction has expanded exponentially, with a concomitant increase in the number of published studies. ACSH asked me to review and analyze influential contributions to the scientific and medical literature, and to discuss issues that continue to stimulate debate. My review, “The Scientific Foundation for Tobacco Harm Reduction, 2006-2011,” has just been published by the Harm Reduction Journal (available here).
Numerous epidemiologic studies and subsequent meta-analyses confirm that smokeless tobacco (ST) use is associated with minimal risks both for cancer and for myocardial infarction; a small increased risk for stroke cannot be excluded. Studies from Sweden document that ST use is not associated with benign gastrointestinal disorders or with chronic inflammatory diseases. Although any form of nicotine should be avoided during pregnancy, the highest risks for the developing baby are associated with smoking. It is documented that ST use has been a key factor in the declining rates of smoking and of smoking-related diseases in Sweden and Norway. For other countries, the potential population health benefits of ST are far greater than the potential risks.
In follow-up studies, dual users of cigarettes and ST are less likely than exclusive smokers to achieve complete tobacco abstinence; however, they are also less likely to be smoking. The health risks from dual use are probably lower than those from exclusive smoking.
E-cigarette users are not exposed to the many toxicants, carcinogens and abundant free radicals formed when tobacco is burned. Although laboratory studies have detected trace concentrations of some contaminants, pending FDA regulation of e-cigarettes as tobacco products is likely to remedy this issue. There is limited evidence from clinical trials that e-cigarettes deliver only small doses of nicotine compared with conventional cigarettes. However, e-cigarette use emulates the cigarette handling rituals and cues of cigarette smoking, which suppresses craving and withdrawal that is not entirely attributable to nicotine delivery.
I will end this post with the same quote that ended my review. It is from the outstanding policy paper “Tobacco harm reduction: how rational public policy could transform a pandemic,” by David Sweanor, Philip Alcabes and Ernest Drucker, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2007 (available here):
"The relative safety of ST and other smoke-free systems for delivering nicotine demolishes the claim that abstinence-only approaches to tobacco are rational public health campaigns...Applying harm reduction principles to public health policies on tobacco/nicotine is more than simply a rational and humane policy. It is more than a pragmatic response to a market that is, anyway, already in the process of undergoing significant changes. It has the potential to lead to one of the greatest public health breakthroughs in human history by fundamentally changing the forecast of a billion cigarette-caused deaths this century."