Just when I thought the state of America’s public health regarding smoking could not get any worse, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) showed me how wrong I was. Their new leaflet: Protect Your Family From E-Cigarettes, would be laughable if it weren’t so lethally serious.
Perhaps my surprise merely reflected my residual naiveté about the devotion of so-called health leaders to maintaining their agendas at the expense of their true mission: preserving (or enhancing) our population’s health status. Yet, each time I hope for an expression of science-based communication regarding our nation’s #1 public health problem — cigarette smoking — I get rudely reminded that officialdom is not to be trusted; they are willing to sacrifice the public good in service to their anti-harm-reduction dogma. (“Harm reduction” is delivering a desired drug with reduced or absent damage to health, such as methadone for heroin addicts. Many in public health believe this is anathema, that the only “right way to quit” is to become abstinent).
To summarize: smoking is America’s most important, and preventable, public health problem: it is estimated that almost a half-million of us will succumb prematurely to smoking’s deadly effects each year, with twenty-times that number sickened. Among our 43 million smokers, over half try to quit each year — yet less than one in twenty succeed. The FDA approved products — patches, gums and drugs — help “boost” that to about one in ten, an abysmal “success” rate of 10 percent. Yet, the official line, from the FDA and the CDC on down, is “stick with the FDA-approved methods; don’t even try anything else!”
This amounts to advising desperate, addicted smokers to “quit, or die,” given the 90 percent failure rate of these products (which happen to be made and marketed by the Big Pharma companies, GSK, Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson, mainly). Meanwhile, out of sight, apparently, of the CDC et al, a groundbreaking technology has been sweeping up smokers and turning them, by the millions, into ex-smokers: electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) and vapor products have been selling at unheard of rates, as smokers sense a way to get their drug of choice — nicotine — without the hundreds of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in smoke.
Sounds too good to be true, right? But what has public health determined about these disruptive, lifesaving products? Although there is zero evidence that they are harming anyone and plenty to show the opposite, their message to smokers remains, “keep away, don’t even try them, no matter how many times you’ve failed to quit with the older methods.”
Right in line with these messages, so antithetical to public health, comes the new advisory from CDPH. The whole intent of it — “protecting one’s family from e-cigs” — makes the devices sound like instruments of terror or violence, rather than a hoped-for escape from the deadly clutches of cigarettes for addicted smokers. It is replete with both false and misleading statements that, in total, make it seem as though e-cigs are as bad as (or worse than) the real things. One header asks, “Aren’t they safer than tobacco cigarettes?” The reader is given plenty of hints that the answer is “no.” Yet that is a scientific abomination: how could e-cigs, which deliver nicotine in propylene glycol (FDA approved) or glycerol, with flavorings and water vapor, be compared in toxicity to the deadly slew of thousands of cigarette-smoke chemicals?
Are the CDPH authorities (and their overlords at the CDC, who funded this destructive propaganda) that stupid — or are other forces at work? The fact that the multi-billion-dollar drug companies stand to lose big-time if their useless cessation products fail to sell because of the shift to e-cigs, while these same companies donate millions to the local, state and even federal health agencies, may play a role in maintaining the false messages of alarm over hypothetical e-cig risks. Local governments are also on the “We Hate Reduced-harm Products” bandwagon — coincidentally, many government budgets are propped up on the backs of addicted and dying smokers thanks to cigarette taxes. What happens if more smokers quit?
The falsehoods alone in the CDPH leaflet should force its immediate retraction. The fact that the overall message — be very afraid of e-cigarettes, keep on smoking the real ones instead! — is sure to kill smokers who just want to quit is an even better reason, but not one the officials want to hear. They should be ashamed, if shame is something they’re even capable of.
Gilbert Ross is medical and executive director, and acting president, of the American Council on Science and Health, a public health nonprofit founded in 1978, based in New York with a panel of science and policy advisors numbering 360. Dr. Ross got his M.D. from NYU School of Medicine in 1972 and practiced internal medicine for twenty years on Long Island NY. He joined ACSH in 1998. He is boarded in Int. Med. and Rheumatology.