*Steven Greenhut co-authored this op-ed.

Activists around the country will again march for science in April as part of a budding movement promoting the importance of making public-policy decisions based on evidence and the scientific method.

A key part of the scientific method is adjusting one’s position upon the discovery of new information. If you’re going to tout science, you’ve got to go where the evidence takes you, even if that means changing your mind.

Unfortunately, we rarely see much mind-changing in public policy, even in supposedly science-based policy debates. Interest groups and politicians take firm positions and then battle with the other side over proposed laws or regulations, regardless of what new evidence may come to light. And that’s the reason why a recent policy position from a prominent public-health group has grabbed national headlines — it’s not often that major groups evolve on core issues.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) is one of the leaders in the battle against tobacco products. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control blames 480,000 American deaths a year on cigarette-smoking as well as second-hand smoke. In light of those daunting — though possibly exaggerated — fatality numbers, ACS has long recommended that Americans abstain from all tobacco products. That’s certainly a good idea.

However, despite the long-recognized evidence of the dangers of smoking — along with well-funded anti-smoking campaigns and policies throughout the country — 37.8 million Americans continue to smoke cigarettes. That is why public-health groups push for policies designed to lower smoking rates. They also generally support the use of medically-approved smoking-cessation aids like nicotine gum, patches and inhalers. Yet they’ve traditionally taken a harsh view toward e-cigarettes, otherwise known as “vaping.”

That has been the case even though research from the top British health agency has found that e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes and are quickly becoming the most popular cessation aid for those who would like to quit. Unfortunately, the U.S. anti-smoking community typifies what we described above — a situation where activists cling to a position even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Enter the ACS which, in February, released a new statement on vaping. “Based on currently available evidence,” the society explained, “using current generation e-cigarettes is less harmful than smoking cigarettes, but the health effects of long-term use are not known.” The eye-opener came when the ACS “recommend[ed] that clinicians support all attempts to quit the use of combustible tobacco and work with smokers to eventually stop using any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes.”

ACS appears to continue struggling with this issue. A statement that still crops up on its website notes that while vapor from e-cigarettes (which it refers to as “Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems,” or “ENDS”) “is not likely to be as bad as the smoke from burning tobacco, there are concerns because these products are not regulated.” The society worries that “ENDS are designed to deliver nicotine, and nicotine is addictive,” and concludes that this “strongly suggests that ENDS use will lead to nicotine dependence, which could lead to the use of other tobacco products.”

Some have reported that the society has “change[d] its position on e-cigarettes.” It looks like the ACS’s position has simply evolved in the face of new evidence. That’s encouraging news not just for smokers who want to quit their dangerous habit, but for the overall notion that we can have informed, science-based debates over public-health issues.


Image credit: Rain Ungert

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