Kentucky State Police report that traffic fatalities in 2013 fell to 635 — down 15 percent from the year before and the lowest count since 1947. Lower traffic death rates are due in part to numerous harm reduction measures, including seat belts, airbags, antilock brakes, auto frames that absorb impact and cable barriers in interstate medians.

Now it’s time for the state to employ harm reduction measures for another scourge that kills 12 times as many Kentuckians: cigarette smoking.

As the Kentucky Legislature examines a statewide smoking ban, commonwealth officials should also endorse tobacco harm reduction, offering adult smokers truthful information about — and even encouraging them to switch to — vastly safer smoke-free tobacco products.

It is widely acknowledged by tobacco research and policy experts that smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes are 98 percent safer than cigarettes. The esteemed British Royal College of Physicians in 2007 challenged governments to consider “that smokers smoke predominantly for nicotine, that nicotine itself is not especially hazardous and that if nicotine could be provided in a form that is acceptable and effective as a cigarette substitute, millions of lives could be saved.”

Nicotine is not the major cause of any disease associated with smoking; it’s comparable to caffeine, which is highly addictive but safely consumed in coffee, tea and cola. With cigarettes, it’s the smoke that kills; smokers need to know they can get nicotine in far safer ways.

A statewide campaign to help smokers switch would be scientifically sound and eminently doable. Safer, satisfying cigarette substitutes are available today in every Kentucky convenience store. To promote this public health concept, we offer a free switch-and-quit program template (www.switch­and­quit­owens­, based on our 2011 quit-smoking campaign in Owensboro.

American smokers are already switching. Cigarette consumption is in substantial, protracted decline, as smokers discover spit-free smokeless tobacco options and turn to e-cigarettes, which deliver a satisfying nicotine vapor. A simple, truthful educational program would help more Kentucky smokers quit, vastly improving their health without forcing them to give up tobacco and nicotine entirely.

Sadly, many medical organizations and government agencies, obsessed with pursuit of a tobacco-free society, deny smokers the facts about harm reduction. They should recognize that tobacco prohibition is as unachievable as was the prohibition of alcohol a century ago.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. surgeon general launched the American anti-smoking campaign with a landmark report on the health consequences of smoking. The commonwealth should make smoking history by telling the truth about safer smoke-free tobacco products, enabling Kentucky’s smokers to enjoy longer and healthier lives, unbridled by excessive risks for lung cancer and emphysema.

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