The growing moral panic around vaping could have disastrous consequences, warns a key figure in the global effort to reduce cigarette smoking.
David Sweanor, an adjunct professor in the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, said bans and restrictions on vaping could drive more people to smoke, undoing years of public health efforts to reduce the habit. Over the past 30 years, Sweanor has spearheaded the development of efforts to reduce cigarette smoking in Canada and around the world.
“It is like everyone has forgotten about smoking, which will kill over 100 Canadians today,” he said.
E-cigarettes offer the potential of pushing much more dangerous cigarettes out of the market. In fact, data shows that cigarette sales decreased in Canada as the sale of Juul e-cigarettes increased. But the current panic around vaping could undo the benefit of e-cigarettes as harm reduction, he said.
“Just say no” campaigns around vaping will have the unintended consequences of pushing people toward cigarettes, Sweanor said.
There have, in fact, been recent cases in which people have reported returning to cigarettes because of fears about the unknown dangers of vaping.
“We need to meet people where they are and empower them to make better choices,” Sweanor said. “Just say no campaigns do not meet those criteria, particularly so when we deal with addictions, and dramatically so when the foreseeable consequence is the resumption of a massively more hazardous behaviour like cigarette smoking.”
E-cigarettes and vaping have been in the news with cases of related lung disease on the rise in the U.S. and now Canada.
In the U.S., there have been 12 deaths related to vaping and 805 reported cases of lung injury, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last week, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported the country’s first case of severe vaping-related respiratory illness, in Quebec. Earlier, public health officials in London, Ont. announced they were investigating a high school student who had been on life-support in the summer as another possible case of vaping-related illness.
While health officials continue to investigate the links between vaping and the illnesses, some are warning people to avoid vaping. In the U.S., there have been some vaping bans. This summer, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the sale of e-cigarettes. India has recently banned them.
The Centers for Disease Control is warning people to consider refraining from using e-cigarette or vaping products, particularly those containing THC — an active ingredient in cannabis and something linked to many of the cases of vaping-related lung illness. CDC does advise adults who use e-cigarettes containing nicotine to not return to cigarette smoking.
In Canada, public health officials are trying to balance the public health benefit of e-cigarettes as harm reduction for smokers against concerns about the health effects of vaping.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, released a statement recently warning that vaping is not without risk.
“The long-term health effects of vaping remain unknown. Non-smokers, people who are pregnant and young people should not vape,” she said.
“If you do vape, do not use vaping products that have been obtained from illegal or unregulated sources and do not modify vaping products or add substances to products that are not intended by the manufacturer.”
But public health officials who recognize the value of e-cigarettes as harm reduction for adult smokers say they are concerned about the number of teens and young adults who take up vaping, despite never having smoked.
Sweanor noted that most of the cases being investigated by the CDC are connected with THC and not nicotine-based vaping products. Rather than general warnings about vaping, he said, health officials should be warning specifically about THC-infused oils.
He also notes that some of the public health messaging warning young people about vaping could have the effect of making it seem more appealing to teens.
“This is hugely counterproductive,” he said of the panic around vaping. “We have the potential to get rid of our leading cause of preventable death. What is killing people is the smoke, not the nicotine.”
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