How to Think-Not Feel-about Tobacco Harm Reduction

Nicotine Tob Res. 2019 Sep 19;21(10):1299-1309. doi: 10.1093/ntr/nty084.


Introduction: The debate over tobacco harm reduction (THR) has divided the tobacco control community into two camps, one expressing serious reservations about THR whereas the other believes that reduced-risk products like e-cigarettes will disrupt the cigarette market. The often emotional debate would benefit from dispassionate data-based evaluation of evidence.

Methods: After briefly discussing harm reduction in public health and specifically in tobacco control, this paper identifies major issues concerning e-cigarettes and reviews relevant evidence. Issues include: e-cigarettes' risks compared to cigarette smoking; the effect of vaping on youth smoking; vaping's impact on adult smoking cessation; the net long-term public health implications of vaping; and differences in views on policy issues. The intent is to provide a broad overview of issues and evidence, directing readers to more detailed reviews of specific issues.

Findings: Principal findings include the following: (1) while longitudinal studies suggest that vaping increases never-smoking young people's odds of trying smoking, national survey data indicate that adolescents' 30-day smoking prevalence decreased at an unprecedented rate precisely whereas vaping increased. Use of all other tobacco products also declined. (2) Recent population-level studies add evidence that vaping is increasing adult smoking cessation. (3) Vaping is likely to make a positive contribution to public health.

Conclusions: THR can be a complement to, not a substitute for, evidenced-based tobacco control interventions. Tobacco control professionals need to focus on objective assessment of and discussion about the potential costs and benefits of THR.

Implications: Participants on both sides of the divisive THR debate need to examine the complicated issues and evidence more objectively. This entails considering both the potential benefits and costs associated with reduced-risk products like e-cigarettes. Furthermore, it requires examining different kinds of evidence when considering specific issues. For example, those concerned by longitudinal study findings that vaping increases students' trial of cigarettes should consider US national survey evidence that youth smoking has decreased at an unprecedented rate. A review of the major issues suggests that the potential of vaping to assist adult smokers to quit outweighs the potential negatives.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Harm Reduction*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Smokers / psychology*
  • Smoking / psychology*
  • Smoking Cessation / psychology*
  • Tobacco
  • Vaping / psychology