Home News Articles No one who still smokes cigarettes in 2016 is going to be moved by punitive measures

No one who still smokes cigarettes in 2016 is going to be moved by punitive measures

By | National Post on Feb 18 2016

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Photo Courtesy of Raul Lieberwirth under CC 2.0

Smoking is under attack by governments and public health officials. In order to try to minimize the terrible health effects of cigarettes among the small but stubborn portion of the population that keeps lighting up, many experts in the field are now suggesting extreme tactics, including banning smoking for anyone born after the year 2000. They are working on what National Post reporter Tom Blackwell identified in his Saturday cover story as the “tobacco endgame.”

As Blackwell pointed out, the World Health Organization has already recommended increasing taxes on cigarettes above the exorbitant rates that are currently levied (in Canada in 2014-15, total federal and provincial revenue from tobacco sales was already over $8 billion), and researchers at the University of California at San Francisco have noted that requiring a tobacco license could help further reduce smoking rates.

They’re desperate. This is why they’re falling back on ever more heavy-handed interventions. Instead of looking for creative ways to help people quit smoking or find methods to minimize smoking’s harm, the public health establishment is seeking to make smoking highly impractical and difficult, if not impossible.

While there’s an undeniable logic to this method, believing it can succeed hardly seems in keeping with what we know about human nature. It’s already very expensive, socially ostracizing and logistically difficult to smoke. But some people keep doing it anyway. That’s an indication that all the “sticks” in the world won’t be enough to motivate these smokers to quit (though they will steer smokers to cheaper contraband products); so why not try some “carrots”?

In a recent talk at the Canadian Constitution Foundation’s Law and Freedom Conference (available online at http://is.gd/AqKAW8), Ottawa lawyer and anti-smoking activist David Sweanor argued that the most sensible thing to do now is to focus on reducing the risk of harm for those who are going to smoke, rather than obsessing over abstinence.

He emphasized that it’s not the nicotine in cigarettes that causes the deadly lung cancers and emphysemas, but the act of smoking itself. And there’s already a new technology that allows people to ingest nicotine without the smoke. It’s called vaping and it has helped thousands of people quit smoking.

Unfortunately, the public health establishment has not embraced this pleasant, immeasurably safer alternative to cigarettes, preferring what Sweanor characterizes as the “quit or die” approach — forcing smokers to go cold-turkey, rather than allowing them the benefit of less hazardous choices, even if the alternate choices could save millions of lives. Is vaping 100 per cent risk-free? Of course not. But it’s such a massive improvement over cigarettes that it seems a truly short-sighted shame that municipalities are practically falling over themselves to ban vaping in public spaces.

“We don’t need prohibition,” Sweanor told Blackwell. “What we need is help for people who want to get off cigarettes.”

That help already exists in the form of vaporizers and even smokeless tobacco products, which have been similarly vilified despite their potential to allow people to consume nicotine with much less risk to their health. These are surely a more promising and realistic avenue for reducing smoking deaths than nationalizing cigarette companies, as has been suggested as a “tobacco endgame” strategy.

Disappointingly, the tobacco-control community seems unable to open up to the idea of giving smokers safer alternatives. When vaping comes up, it’s vilified for its (unproven) potential to act as a gateway to cigarettes for young people and dismissed as an inadequate solution because it allows users to continue to take in some degree of nicotine.

I support the public health establishment’s campaign to cut down on smoking deaths. I just disagree with the method they’ve chosen to cling to, even when that method has exhausted its usefulness. No one who still smokes cigarettes in 2016 is going to be moved by punitive measures. The race to ban more and tax more tobacco products isn’t just ineffective, it’s getting in the way of voluntary entrepreneurial products that could be doing massive good.

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