With politicians, activists and the media putting the US e-cigarette industry under intense pressure following over 1080 reported cases of vaping-related illnesses and nearly twenty deaths from lung injuries, the voices of health experts and scientists and their research into the public health benefits of vaping have been drowned out by the clamour.
But in an interview with the CBS This Morning programme in September, Dr David Abrams, a Global Public Health professor at New York University, made the case that the current panic about vaping in the US jeopardises one of the best chances in over a century to finally “get rid of the cigarette” and save millions of lives.
“The science has gotten extremely strong, especially in the last three to four years,” Dr Abrams told CBS’ Tony Dokoupil. “Both in England and some scientists here are looking at the best science and we see the same thing. E-cigarettes are way less harmful than cigarettes and they can, and do, help smokers switch if they can’t quit.”
“We could save as much as 6-7 million lives over 10 years who would otherwise die from smoking”
“What we know for sure is that based upon all the biomarkers of harm that we know from cigarettes, that they are far fewer and far lower in e-cigarettes than cigarettes.”
The professor provided a startling illustration of the public health benefit of e-cigarettes in the relative short-term from NYU’s own research. “Our studies suggested that if 10% of current smokers switched to e-cigarettes every year for the next ten years (100% switched within 10 years) we’d save as much as 6-7 million lives who otherwise would die from cigarette smoking. 87 million quality life years would be gained from switching completely in ten years to e-cigarettes.”
The NYU professor agrees with the FDA’s and CDC’s own reports that the source of the lung injuries most likely came from illicit or black-market oil containing Marijuana or THC oil, with other harmful additives like Vitamin E acetate. “These cases are people who bought marijuana oils on the street, made either illegally or a street version, like a dirty street drug. We haven’t seen a single case that a commercially made, legitimate e-cigarette that smokers are using has caused any of these illnesses. And I would say that smokers should not be scared by what they’re seeing, and that e-cigarettes should still be used instead of cigarettes if they’ve already switched.”
Addressing the alarm in the US surrounding vaping, Dr Abrams said, “I think there is legitimate concern that teens are using them at much higher rates, and there is a concern about nicotine and nicotine addiction, even though nicotine itself doesn’t cause the cancer, lung disease or heart ailments that cigarettes do. It’s the smoke and carbon monoxide. And there is a concern that teens who use it [e-cigarettes] might get addicted and go on to cigarette smoking, but the evidence doesn’t really support that at the level that we ought to panic about it.”
“If we lose this opportunity, I think we would have blown the single biggest public health opportunity we’ve ever had in 120 years”
Many opponents to vaping argue that as the long-term effects of e-cigarettes are not yet known, they should not be considered safe. “And that’s true that we don’t know the long-term risks or benefits, and we won’t for fifty years,” responded Dr Abrams. “But we know enough now from the science of the biomarkers of harm, especially cancer, that show us that there are so few of those chemicals and at such low levels, that e-cigarettes are biologically much less harmful in term of exposures. They’re not harmless, but they are dramatically less harmful. “
Public health would benefit dramatically if everybody switched to e-cigarettes, he said, and if society made cigarettes obsolete. “That would also solve the teen problem because we wouldn’t be afraid of the ‘gateway to cigarettes’ if nobody wanted cigarettes anymore.”
Over a century ago, the most disruptive technology to health to emerge was the industrial cigarette rolling machine, explained Dr Abrams. “It literally caused this epidemic of lung cancer and other diseases, and now we have an opportunity, 120 years later, to get rid of the cigarette with a new technology that delivers nicotine in a very satisfying way without the major harms of burning tobacco.
“If we lose this opportunity, I think we would have blown the single biggest public health opportunity we’ve ever had in 120 years.”
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