If e-cigarettes aren’t harmful, then prove it

In 2005, Washington voters overwhelmingly passed the Smoking in Public Places Act to protect our residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke in public places and places of employment. While the benefits of this law are great, it came long after the health effects of secondhand smoke (death, disability and economic impacts) were well documented.

For decades, tobacco companies hid evidence of harmful effects, cleverly marketed cigarettes as glamorous and even healthy, and lobbied to block attempts at regulation. Public health officials finally stepped in, but after it was too late for many who became sick or died from asthma, emphysema, chronic lung disease, cancer, heart disease and stroke.

And here we are today, in what feels like an all-too-familiar storyline.

Business owners tell you that their product is safe, harmless, and even helpful to quit smoking. They tell convincing, anecdotal stories but never show proof of safety and efficacy, and certainly never discuss their financial motives.

On one hand, e-cigarette manufacturers argued that e-cigarettes should not be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as drug-delivery devices because they are not marketed as or meant to be cessation aids.

Yet here in Pierce County, e-cigarette retailers extol their products as an effective way to help people quit. It all sounds strikingly similar to the insincere arguments made four decades ago by the tobacco industry.

In the absence of FDA regulation, e-cigarette manufacturers are not subject to the same rigorous standards as the manufacturers of approved cessation products.

Approved nicotine patches, gum and inhalers all had to be proved safe and effective; e-cigarettes have never been shown to be either. FDA analysis of e-cigarettes found their vapor contains nicotine and other harmful chemicals known to be toxic and cancer-causing.

At the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, we have the responsibility to protect people’s health and believe it is bad policy to allow the public to be exposed to harmful chemicals such as nicotine and nitrosamines. The burden of proof to show that e-cigarettes are safe and effective should reside with manufacturers and retailers, and the product should not risk our residents’ health in the meantime.

Opponents of the proposed regulations argue that we should not pass policy without solid evidence. While we agree that regulation should be based on data, where conclusive evidence is absent we need to use known facts and common sense to guide us.

Let us be clear: Nicotine is not benign. It is a nerve poison that affects the brain, heart and many other organs. Approved cessation products have to release nicotine in very precise and controlled ways, but e-cigarettes have been found to deliver inconsistent amounts of nicotine.

As the May 6 News Tribune editorial noted, our county has seen adult tobacco use decline dramatically in the last decade. The editorial also states, “Fake smokes, many of which look almost indistinguishable from real cigarettes, keep smoking in the public eye and help normalize the act of lighting up.”

We too are concerned about the role-modeling aspects of e-cigarettes and potential increase in the social acceptability of smoking. Any increase will not only harm smokers but will also drive up cancer and heart and lung disease, which in turn will drive up health care costs to businesses and taxpayers.

Our mission is to safeguard and enhance the health of the communities of Pierce County. We will continue to do this with the best available information, common sense and a belief that we should err on the side of safety when it comes to protecting our residents’ health.

When the e-cigarette industry can prove that its product has no harmful side effects to users and bystanders, we will reconsider our position. In the interim, we will continue to promote prevention of tobacco use and cessation resources that have been proved safe and effective and propose regulations needed to protect the health of Pierce County. Anthony Chen, M.D., is director of health with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.


One response to “If e-cigarettes aren’t harmful, then prove it

  1. Bev Kennedy

    This article is ridiculous. It is impossibile to prove a negative. There is NO POSSIBLE WAY to prove that something “is not” harmful, just like there is no possible way to prove something does not exist.

    This is still America and in THIS country, it’s still (at least for a while) up to the accuser to prove his allegations.

    Since the “protectors” (of all us stupid people) are the ones making unfounded claims that e-cigarettes are harmful, YOU PROVE THEY ARE harmful, more harmful that the cessation products you think are not harmful. In THIS country the burden of proof is on the one making the allegation, on the accuser.

    Now: of course e-cigarettes are and will help people stop smoking. Why? When someone is inhaling vapor from an e-cig THEY ARE NOT SMOKING (there is nothing burning = no smoke = not smoking).


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