Electronic cigarettes should be part of the harm reduction debate

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Public health experts have long considered harm reduction an effective approach to the reduction – but not the elimination – of risks caused by various behaviors. Harm reduction policies applied to tobacco will make great progress because we desperately need an alternative policy that complements prevention and cessation. We need options to give more flexibility to tobacco users who do not want, or are unable, to quit. Smokers should be given the choice of potentially reducing their risk through the availability of modified risk products or non-combustible products, such as smokeless tobacco or electronic cigarettes that provide reductions in harmful smoke constituent exposures.

Last year my company acquired blu eCigs, a leading electronic cigarette company. Many public health experts have now recognized that e cigarettes offer many of the benefits of other smokeless products, such as no tobacco smoke or odor, and a level of harmful constituents comparable with what is found in nicotine replacement products, but in a way that is familiar to current adult cigarette smokers who are looking for an alternative. We see e-cigarettes as a product that has the potential to play a critical role in the national harm reduction discussion and affords our company a seat at the table in this debate. 

Making less harmful products available to smokers as soon as possible should be a top priority for policy makers. We can and should arrive at a place where modified risk claims mirror the continuum of risk. Modest reductions in exposure should justify modest claims; extensively reduced exposures should justify more significant claims. It is imperious and flatly wrong to withhold truthful information about relative risk in order to protect the all-or-nothing tobacco policy.

Along these lines, we believe the FDA took a beneficial step this month when it said it would allow flexibility in how nicotine-replacement therapy products, such as gum or a patch, are used and for how long. We view this as a signal that the FDA is ready to acknowledge that nicotine use itself may not be the real problem, but instead smoke from combustible cigarettes causes the real harm.

Harm reduction is especially important now because the FDA has indicated it will take the first step by asserting its regulatory authority over electronic cigarettes. The occasion calls for aligning business interests with regulatory interests in a true partnership and in a civil, substantive manner. Lorillard already has taken its own steps by supporting state legislation to ensure it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18, by initiating strict product quality controls, and by marketing blu eCigs in a responsible manner.

It is entirely within our collective abilities to devise a regulatory framework to further reduce the harm caused by tobacco products. Even a modest reduction in exposure and risk for a product that is broadly accepted by consumers may, in the final analysis, offer the greatest benefit to the public health. E-cigarettes offer a unique opportunity to drive tobacco harm reduction. We will make a mistake if we waste additional years pursuing the all-or-nothing approach. There is a better approach to tobacco policy. 

Kessler is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Lorillard, Inc., the holding company that owns Lorillard Tobacco Co. and blu eCigs.