The American Cancer Society’s (ACS) new policy statement on e-cigarettes’ role in promoting smoking cessation is a welcome and long-overdue change, making some good first steps toward helping more people successfully kick the habit and reconciling the organization’s stated goals with its message.
In February, ACS issued a new policy statement titled “ACS Position Statement on Electronic Cigarettes.” Despite the bland name, the new policy could create huge benefits, help more people quit smoking, or at least switch to less-harmful alternatives.
“The ACS has always supported any smoker who is considering quitting, no matter what approach they use; there is nothing more important that they can do for their health,” ACS wrote. “To help smokers quit, the ACS recommends that clinicians advise their patients to use FDA-approved cessation aids that have been proven to support successful quit attempts. Many smokers choose to quit smoking without the assistance of a clinician and some opt to use e-cigarettes to accomplish this goal.”
Importantly, the policy organization suggests that doctors should be supportive of patients’ efforts to improve their health using tobacco harm reduction tools.
“The ACS recommends 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,” the policy statement says.
Although the policy statement incorrectly lumps e-cigarettes in with cigarettes as “tobacco” and calls for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate them “to the full extent of its authority,” the new policy is more reasonable than past stances.
In 2014, the organization warned potential quitters e-cigarettes are unsafe and unregulated, encouraging wannabe abstainers to stick to less effective methods, such as nicotine replacement therapy patches or pure willpower.
“Some people think they can be used to help people give up tobacco,” ACS said in 2014. “The makers of e-cigarettes say that the ingredients are ‘safe,’ but this only means the ingredients have been found to be safe to eat. Inhaling a substance is not the same as swallowing it. There are questions about how safe it is to inhale some substances in the e-cigarette vapor into the lungs. And e-cigarettes are not labeled with their ingredients, so the user doesn’t know what’s in them. The amounts of nicotine and other substances a person gets from each cartridge are also unclear.”
ACS’ policy change is long overdue and trails well-accepted medical research by several years. Studies have shown e-cigarettes to be more effective tobacco cessation tools than many government-sanctioned products, such as nicotine patches.
The governments of many European countries are likewise encouraging doctors to recommend e-cigarettes’ use as cessation tools, even as American policymakers drag their feet or even make progress in the opposite direction. As ACS was telling people e-cigarettes had no role in cessation, scientists were finding evidence to the contrary. For example, a 2014 study by a team of health behavior researchers at University College London, including Dr. West, examined the cessation success rates of e-cigarette users compared to patch users. They determined e-cigarettes are almost twice as effective as patches at helping people quit.
“Respondents who reported having used an e-cigarette in their most recent quit attempt were more likely to report still not smoking than those who used [nicotine replacement therapy] bought over-the-counter or nothing,” the researchers wrote. “This difference remained after adjusting for time since the quit attempt started, year of the survey, age, gender, social grade, abrupt versus gradual quitting, prior quit attempts in the same year and a measure of nicotine dependence.”
In the four years it took ACS to see the light, how many people tried to quit smoking and failed, because their doctor steered them away from trying e-cigarettes as a cessation tool? How many people’s cessation efforts are failing today, because other respected medical organizations are dragging their feet and not recognizing what science tells us about e-cigarettes’ role in cessation and harm reduction efforts?
Many cities and states have worked to ban or discourage e-cigarette use in public and private spaces in the name of improving public health, but e-cigarettes can be a powerful tool that helps people move away from tobacco. It should never be discouraged as an alternative to smoking and has relatively few health risks, according to available scientific data.
Hopefully, ACS will continue to examine the facts and accelerate what seems to be a gradual shift away from the unfounded demonization of e-cigarettes that U.S. health agencies and other organizations have engaged in over the past decade.
Jesse Hathaway (email@example.com) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.