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Harm Reduct J. 2009 Nov 3;6:29. doi: 10.1186/1477-7517-6-29.

Debunking the claim that abstinence is usually healthier for smokers than switching to a low-risk alternative, and other observations about anti-tobacco-harm-reduction arguments.

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1
University of Alberta, School of Public Health, Edmonton, AB, Canada. cvphilo@gmail.com

Abstract

Nicotine is so desirable to many people that when they are given only the options of consuming nicotine by smoking, with its high health costs, and not consuming nicotine at all, many opt for the former. Few smokers realize that there is a third choice: non-combustion nicotine sources, such as smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes, or pharmaceutical nicotine, which eliminate almost all the risk while still allowing consumption of nicotine. Widespread dissemination of misleading health claims is used to prevent smokers from learning about this lifesaving option, and to discourage opinion leaders from telling smokers the truth. One common misleading claim is a risk-risk comparison that has not before been quantified: A smoker who would have eventually quit nicotine entirely, but learns the truth about low-risk alternatives, might switch to an alternative instead of quitting entirely, and thus might suffer a net increase in health risk. While this has mathematical face validity, a simple calculation of the tradeoff -- switching to lifelong low-risk nicotine use versus continuing to smoke until quitting -- shows that such net health costs are extremely unlikely and of trivial maximum magnitude. In particular, for the average smoker, smoking for just one more month before quitting causes greater health risk than switching to a low-risk nicotine source and never quitting it. Thus, discouraging a smoker, even one who would have quit entirely, from switching to a low-risk alternative is almost certainly more likely to kill him than it is to save him. Similarly, a strategy of waiting for better anti-smoking tools to be developed, rather than encouraging immediate tobacco harm reduction using current options, kills more smokers every month than it could possibly ever save.

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