Brian Lee Crowley: Canada's 'abstinence only' approach to smoking tobacco isn't helping
By BRIAN LEE CROWLEY
Shocking, I know, but the sorry truth is people are going to have sex. That includes teenagers. That’s why a government sex-education policy based solely on promoting abstinence would not only be laughable. It would rightly be condemned as irresponsible.
Alas this is exactly how governments in Canada want to protect us from the harms associated with tobacco. Abstinence is the only officially-approved message, despite the fact that technological advances are rapidly transforming the tobacco landscape.
Everyone knows smoking kills and is rightly discouraged as the single largest cause of preventable death in Canada. What many people fail to realize, however, is the health risks arise chiefly from the burning of tobacco and not from the consumption of nicotine.
The distinction between combustion (“smoking”) and tobacco use is not a trivial one. Many people derive comfort and pleasure from a hit of nicotine – one no riskier to your health than other completely legal stimulants like coffee, alcohol and (soon) marijuana. You’d think, therefore, that technological advances that allowed people to indulge their nicotine habit while largely eliminating the health risks associated with tobacco combustion would be welcomed by the same people for whom “harm-reduction” is a byword when dealing with various other vices.
The reverse is the case. So great is the animus against tobacco that health authorities are actively trying to prevent, by law, Canadians gaining access to knowledge about products that could significantly reduce the harm of tobacco use.
Legislation passed by the Senate and now awaiting consideration by the Commons will limit the sellers of various forms of e-cigarettes (e.g., “vaping”) to making only yet-to-be-authorized government approved claims about the relative health benefits of their product compared to cigarettes. Worst still, tobacco products that eliminate combustion, such as Swedish snus (taken orally, with comparatively minor risks) and ones that release nicotine by heating tobacco but not burning it, will be forbidden to make similar claims even when the scientific evidence supports them. Violators risk not just hefty fines but jail time.
Contrary to what some argue, this is not just an issue of free speech for the tobacco companies. These draconian rules will apply to us all, and trample on the right of Canadians to hear information that might allow them to reduce significantly the health effects of their tobacco use if they find abstinence unrealistic.
Far more sensibly the US Food and Drug Administration recently announced it will regulate tobacco products along a so-called “continuum of risk,” with government policy aiming to encourage people to move to lower-risk, non-combustible products wherever possible, such as snus, vaping, heated tobacco, etc. This policy wisely takes aim at the combustion of tobacco, which is at the heart of the health problems associated with tobacco use.
Canada’s approach remains that any tobacco product is beyond the pale and may not be promoted, even to the extent of informing Canadians about scientific evidence of how they could indulge their
nicotine habit while significantly lowering their health risk. This policy makes an extreme and impractical goal (elimination of tobacco use) more important than the immediately achievable (real harm reduction). In Japan, one new non-combustion product alone has already captured over ten percent of the tobacco market from cigarettes and that share is forecast to double by year end. Snus has allowed Sweden to have the lowest rates of smoking among wealthy nations.
Unrealistic “abstinence only” policies have been signal failures in reducing drug use or teenage sex. Why would we think it is a good idea where tobacco is concerned? We have the opportunity essentially to eliminate the cigarette through technological change and informed consumer choice. Let’s take it.
Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa. www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.