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Leading Tobacco Control Expert Says Anti-E-Cig Lobby Is Like ‘Abstinence Only’ Movement

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Guy Bentley Research Associate, Reason Foundation
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One of the world’s leading tobacco control experts is speaking out against an overzealous public health movement more concerned with fighting big companies than improving people’s health.

“We had this fundamental problem that you had people that had taken an absolutist position- this is all about right and wrong, and they were more like the abstinence-only people on sex education, or on drugs or alcohol,” says expert David Sweanor. “They saw any alternative product as a problem because it might potentially allow a cigarette company to morph into something else, and it’s a battle against these companies they couldn’t allow that to happen.”

Sweanor has spent more than 30 years fighting tobacco. He is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and special lecturer with the division of epidemiology and public health at the University of Nottingham.

“I got involved, I believe, as the first lawyer in the world to work full-time on public advocacy issues through cigarette smoking,” Sweanor told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“I got involved in a whole range of things with smoking on the policy economic front, things like increasing tobacco taxes, reducing points of sale, getting cigarette bans in hospitals and pharmacies, getting rid of counter-top displays, Powerball displays, getting rid of cigarette advertising, sports sponsorships, cultural sponsorships, getting rid of smoking on airplanes, and at grocery stores, workplaces, elevators, pretty everywhere when we started.”

Sweanor has been at the forefront of the public movement’s efforts to reduce smoking worldwide and is a long-standing opponent of major tobacco companies.

“I ended up in a lot of work globally with my colleges in organizations like World Health Organization, World Bank, major health- medical bodies, governments, lawyers who were involved in lawsuits against cigarette companies.” (RELATED: Professor Warns War On E-Cigarettes Protects Big Tobacco And Kills Smokers)

Sweanor’s principal aim, along with many of his colleagues, was tobacco harm reduction rather than prohibition. “I think one of the amazing things in dealing with cigarette smoking is that when I was new, the field harm reduction wasn’t controversial, that’s part of what you did.”

But according to Sweanor, the anti-smoking movement has undergone a radical change, with a split occurring between those who favor harm reduction and those who want the public to give up nicotine altogether. Nowhere is this more prevalent than relentless attacks being launched on e-cigarettes, says Sweanor.

“Over time, it became that we went from being more pragmatic public health-oriented, to a culture that was more absolutist, that it wasn’t a matter of reducing death and disease, it was like a battle against evil. It’s not an issue to save the lives of people so much as we’re here to tell them how to live their lives,” he says.

Sweanor questions why the split has occurred and why so many of his colleagues who favor harm reduction over abstinence in so many other areas of health policy take a different view when it comes to the world of tobacco and e-cigarettes.

“Why is it that the same people if you say, what do you think about sex education for teenagers, or what do you think about giving people access to diet things rather than sugary drinks—they’re all on board. They have no problems with those sorts of things! And you say, and what do you think about the idea of allowing smokers to get the nicotine today that won’t kill them? …And they get really upset about the idea.”

Asked why he thought there was such an objection to regular nicotine use in the form of vaping, Sweanor recounts the old days of the first tobacco wars between cigarette companies and the public health movement.

“I think the cigarette companies set themselves up as being these classic bad guys- they put on the black hat, for years claiming that cigarettes don’t cause disease, that it isn’t addictive, that advertising didn’t affect consumption, all various things that they would say for a long time.”

“So they took on the role of bad guys, and bad guys attract good guys, ya’ know as they say they took on the role of dragons, dragons attract dragon fighters.”

This is the central reason for the militancy of some in the anti-smoking movement, a part of which is now morphing in an anti-vaping movement.

“I think a lot of people are very well meaning but they have very rigid morality, they saw the world in terms of black and white, right and wrong, and they saw this as a battle not so much a public health battle as a political battle against companies.”

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Guy Bentley