The FDA’s new vision for tobacco harm reduction
Gottlieb cited facts about nicotine, emphasizing its addictive qualities and the need to keep children away from all tobacco products. He also made one critical distinction:
[T]he nicotine in cigarettes is not directly responsible for the cancer, lung disease, and heart disease that kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year. Yes, it got them all addicted and kept them addicted for the long term. And it got most of them addicted when they were still teenagers. But it’s the other chemical compounds in tobacco, and in the smoke created by setting tobacco on fire, that directly and primarily cause the illness and death, not the nicotine.
This has been one of my principle themes for more than two decades.
Gottlieb called for reduction of nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels, an idea that I criticized in my 1995 book, For Smokers Only and, more recently, on my blog (here and here). However, I was critical because advocates of nicotine fadeout were deluded in thinking it would work in the absence of viable tobacco substitutes. Unlike them, Gottlieb embraces the harm reduction component:
[W]e need to envision a world where cigarettes lose their addictive potential through reduced nicotine levels. And a world where less harmful alternative forms, efficiently delivering satisfying levels of nicotine, are available for those adults who need or want them.
The new commissioner underscored the value of less harmful products:
I also hope that we can all see the potential benefits to addicted cigarette smokers, in a properly regulated marketplace, of products capable of delivering nicotine without having to set tobacco on fire. The prospective benefit may be even greater for the subset of current cigarette smokers who find themselves unable or unwilling to quit.
Note two key phrases above: (1) “less harmful forms [of tobacco], efficiently delivering satisfying levels of nicotine, are available for adults who need or want them” and (2) “current cigarette smokers who find themselves unable or unwilling to quit.”
I used the latter words in 1994 to describe my vision for a new approach to smoking control:
In a review of the avoidable causes of cancer, Doll and Peto observed that ‘No single measure is known that would have as great an impact on the number of deaths attributable to cancer as a reduction in the use of tobacco or a change to the use of tobacco in a less dangerous way.’ Unfortunately, the second part of this observation has not received attention. Because smokeless tobacco causes far fewer and considerably less serious health effects than does smoking, it should be promulgated as an alternative to cigarettes for smokers unable or unwilling to overcome their nicotine addiction.
Gottlieb’s use of “unable or unwilling” acknowledges the effectiveness of tobacco harm reduction, without judging smokers. This theme is repeated in Gottlieb’s closing:
A renewed focus on nicotine can help us to achieve a world where cigarettes no longer addict future generations of our kids; and where adults who still need or want nicotine can get it from alternative and less harmful sources. FDA stands ready to do its share.
Many of the commissioner’s talking points are virtually identical to the policies I have researched and advocated for two decades. Gottlieb notes the rancor in this field, saying:
[T]here’s the ongoing divisive debate around the pros and cons of e-cigarettes. Precious little progress has been made as competing camps dig in on the benefits and risks of a harm reductionist approach to this new technology. Both sides are convinced that they’re right, but we’ve seen little progress, and virtually no common ground.
He encouraged “participants from all sectors in the ongoing harm reduction debate…to take a step back and work together to reach greater common ground.”
I applaud Dr. Gottlieb’s leadership on this issue and offer my support in turning his vision into reality.