Carl V Phillips has a really good piece on the concept of “Harm Reduction” as it applies to ecigarettes and everything else. He argues that ecigarette advocates have lost their way:
And yet, many people who fancy themselves supporters of tobacco harm reduction actively support most of those caused harms. They actively support punitive taxes on cigarettes, social opprobrium heaped on smokers, prohibitions against publicans being able to offer smoking sections, etc. Indeed, those individuals often celebrate or advocate for the caused harms because they create further incentives for the only aspect of harm reduction they actually support, switching products. It reminds me of the Orwellian themes of about half the anti-smoking propaganda I see these days: “Quit because it is so expensive and forces you to take breaks from hanging with your friends!” Um, yeah, and whose fault is that? It is the same as those messages of “if you smoke weed, you might lose your student financial aid and future employment prospects, so don’t go saying it is not bad for you!” Needless to say, you will never hear a peep of condemnation of this hypocritical “concern” for users’ well-being from the faux supporters of harm reduction.
The bottom line is simple: Anyone who supports punishing smokers does not actually believe in tobacco harm reduction. None of those “but for the greater good we need to…” protests changes this. Causing harm is not harm reduction.
I agree with Phillips on some things within the larger debate, and disagree with him on others, but his criticism here does strike close to home. The pro-vaping community is an odd bunch that includes a lot of different perspectives. Phillips is something of a lefty, Clive Bates is a Tory, Robert West is Labour, and so on. Some are public health advocates that primarily see the value of ecigarettes in terms of being better than smoking, while others see it more through the lens of freedom or at least balancing that freedom with health concerns. That latter distinction is important because it informs how cigarettes are viewed, which is the subject of a lot of debate.
For the most part, the vaping community has hung its hat on how the product is different from smoking, and therefore take an anti-smoking stance. The harms of cigarettes are important, therefore little effort is put into contextualizing that harm or questioning some of the more questionable claims of public health advocates as it pertains to the harms of smoking. It helps that a lot of vapers are former smokers and, such as myself, proud of being former smokers. And less benignly, we know that when it comes to political relationships smokers, tobacco companies, and smoking make for a pretty toxic alliance.
And yet the enemies of smoking have, at least in the US, become our enemies as well. The FDA only begrudgingly acknowledges any difference whatsoever between smoking and vaping and often actively seek to obfuscate any difference.
So whether we like it or not, and whether it’s convenient or not, there is some common cause there. And many of the underlying arguments are not entirely dissimilar. Ecigarettes are not harmless, so in the eyes of many it’s an open question of whether or not it should be allowed. Cigarettes are very harmful, but not to everybody and as Phillips points out the shaming itself, whether through government action or social mechanism, is itself a harm. I have a catalog of things the government does to smokers for little no other reason than that it causes harm, in hopes of getting them to quit. By causing harm I don’t just mean some of the harder-to-justify mechanisms of making smoking more difficult, but intentionally making cigarette packaging or cigarettes physically revolting. When public health advocates express a fear of ecigarettes “normalizing” smoking, they tend to support policies with the primary effect of abnormalizing it. Formalizing the disgust of the public.
Now, maybe that is good public policy in the end if the net gains from people not smoking outweigh the psychological and emotional harm done to smokers. Maybe penalizing smokers through taxes can be justified if it discourages smoking. But Phillips is right: It’s antithetical to the notion of harm reduction. And it becomes clearer that does more than just make an enemy of smoking. It makes an enemy of the smokers themselves.
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