Safer than cigarettes? FDA commissioner calls vaping a “safer alternative”

Trying to quit smoking is one of the hardest things there is to do. The FDA has always held out alternative nicotine delivery systems such as gum and patches as an approved smoking cessation solution, and while those solutions do deliver nicotine to the body, they lack the harmful smoke of combustible cigarettes.

An important point to observe in considering these cessation solutions is that that real carcinogenic danger comes from the smoke, not the nicotine, which is why clinicians often recommend the chewing gum or patch. The smoker still gets the nicotine to which they have become addicted, but there’s no smoke going into the lungs.

Chewing gum and patches are limited in their effectiveness however. Smokers may be addicted to nicotine, but they also crave the physical sensation of smoking.

Recently the FDA acknowledged in a statement that e-cigarettes can also serve as “an alternative to cigarettes for adults who still seek access to satisfying levels of nicotine, without the deadly effects of combustion.”

The science of vaping

Anti-vaping activism often equates vaping with smoking. And while some vape products may be tobacco-based, the actual similarities are limited. A tobacco cigarette actually ignites tobacco, and creates smoke which is inhaled. That smoke, along with the tar byproducts and particulates in the smoke, is what causes the greatest health risks. E-cigarettes on the other hand, take a liquid or dry ingredient and apply heat without ignition, which results in vapor, rather than more harmful smoke.

Also, while most vaping products do contain nicotine, nicotine-free products are also available, allowing a smoker to use it as a highly effective smoking cessation tool by gradually moving away from high-nicotine vape liquids to low-nicotine, and eventually no-nicotine, while still enjoying the physical act of vaping.

The American Cancer Society has also issued a position paper on e-cigarettes which more closely aligns with the actual science of vaping rather than those arguments put forth by critics which rely on inaccurate comparisons to tobacco, rather than the science and the potential for a healthy and effective smoking cessation device. In a recent article on Vapor Authority, it was noted that “Unlike other industries, vape manufacturers have readily subjected their products to independent, third-party review. Vape advocates aren’t frustrated with the prolific counterarguments; rather, they oppose false constructs of independent research and their conclusions.”

The ACS also points out the common misconceptions, saying in its report, “Public misunderstanding underscores the urgent need for consumer education about the absolute and relative risks posed by different tobacco products and to reinvigorate smokers’ understanding of the importance of quitting combustible tobacco. Whereas complete information on all the potential risks and benefits of ENDS [Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems] is not yet available, there is sufficient information to allow ACS to act now with a clear focus on the primary goal of ending deadly combustible tobacco use, which is responsible for approximately one-half million deaths per year and 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States.”

Why combustion matters

The American Cancer Society also notes that combustible tobacco products generate about 7,000 chemicals, at least 70 of which are carcinogenic. The smoke that results from combustion is what transforms organic matter (tobacco leaves) into inorganic matter, changing the chemistry of the tobacco and creating harmful particulates and tar which cause cancer.

¬†While the FDA does not take a position on the long-term health effects of vaping, they acknowledge that “Based on currently available evidence, using current generation e-cigarettes is less harmful than smoking cigarettes.” The agency’s position is a practical one. They do recommend FDA-approved smoking cessation devices like gum and patches, but they have taken a step in the right direction in acknowledging that some smokers who wish to quit, will turn to e-cigarettes as a more effective aid as opposed to gum and patches, which they see as less satisfying. The agency says, “These individuals should be encouraged to switch to the least harmful form of tobacco product possible; switching to the exclusive use of e-cigarettes is preferable to continuing to smoke combustible products.”

It is important to separate the dialog put forth by anti-vaping activists and opponents, from the actual science and practical benefits of vaping. Recognizing the vaping is not the same as smoking is the important first step, and both the FDA and the American Cancer Society are offering a more practical and reasoned approach based on science, which acknowledges the proven benefits of vaping relative to smoking.