Written by Gilbert Ross, M.D.
The American Council on Science and Health

It’s the most important public health problem in the world — preventing the devastation wreaked by smoking. Experts predict the global death toll of cigarettes will approach a billion lives lost this century. Sadly, among the world’s 34 developed countries, Korea ranks highest among tobacco prevalence.
 
That millions of people in Korea, and hundreds of millions of people around the world, are addicted to cigarettes should be considered the worst global catastrophe in human history. But misguided or agenda-driven government officials and public health experts worldwide are condemning the best hope for mitigating its damage  — electronic cigarettes and certain low-risk tobacco products that have the potential to reduce the risk caused by smoking.
 
This week these bureaucrats will be gathering at a conclave in Seoul for the possible revision of an international tobacco treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), where they’ll be taking up e-cigarettes and perhaps even calling for a ban.
 
This is the bizarre and counter-productive logic employed by these bureaucrats: Since e-cigarettes look like actual cigarettes, they have concluded that they must be just as harmful. Only they’re not — although they work as a public health tool precisely because of their resemblance to the real thing.
 
Electronic cigarettes work by giving addicted smokers the nicotine they crave, without the toxic smoke.  They supply a variable amount of nicotine in a watery vapor and produce a red glow at the tip when puffed upon. That similarity — especially the nicotine, the highly addictive substance smokers crave — is what is best about e-cigarettes. The nicotine “hit” they supply matches, more or less, that of inhaling cigarette smoke, as do the behavioral mannerisms of holding the thing as though it was their familiar “friend,” and killer: the lethal cigarette.
 
But that’s where the similarity ends. There are no products of combustion to be inhaled hundreds of times a day, and hence no tobacco toxins. Nicotine is not a health threat, per se: its danger lies in its potent addictive power. E-cigarette users — they call themselves vapers — get the satisfying drug but none of the tarry smoke. That’s why many smokers who switch to e-cigarettes succeed in staying smoke-free, while those who try to quit using the FDA-approved methods so often fail.  This was most prevalent in Korea, where smoking rates plunged from 70 percent of adult males over the past decade, only to level off and leave one half of men addicted to this deadly product.
 
Among America’s 46 million smokers, well over half say they want to quit, and over one-third attempt to do so each year — but less than one-tenth succeed! Yet, in a triumph of hypocrisy over science, the powers-that-be keep touting ineffective cessation products that fail 90 percent of the time. Unfortunately, the same story is recurring in Europe, Asia and this week, at the FCTC Conference of Parties, in Korea.
 
Despite those sorry statistics, those in charge at numerous government agencies and NGOs chant in unison, “Stick with the approved cessation methods.”  This advice can be translated to “Quit, or die.”
 
The irrationality of these “public health” arguments puts into stark relief the blind-spot of the prohibitionist zealots: They fail to acknowledge the inconvenient fact that the millions of smokers in Europe, Asia and America – not to mention the billion or so worldwide – are not going to suddenly accept being regulated off their nicotine. The millions who have succeeded in quitting thanks to e-cigarettes and reduced risk tobacco products will not kick their habit and become nicotine-abstinent if these products are prohibited. No — they will revert to the widely available, deadliest source: cigarettes.
 
Prohibiting the safest form of nicotine delivery will increase, not stem, the tsunami of cigarette-related death. Truly informing smokers about reduced-risk nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and increasing access to these products is the best way we have to save millions of lives.
 
Dr. Gilbert Ross, M.D. is executive and medical director of the American Council on Science and Health

Marmot’s Note: More on the “global tobacco tax” here.