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Harm reduction and harm production at BAT

“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” goes a popular saying, and no politics is stranger these days than that of vaping, where nobody is allowed to say what everybody believes to be the case, where health organizations prohibit products proven to enhance health, and where your friendly local poison dealer sells the antidote to his poisons from under his other lapel.

British American Tobacco, which markets the cigarette brands Lucky Strike, Kent, Pall Mall, Kool, Benson & Hedges, and Rothman’s, and of late the e-cigarette Vype, has come out with a statement advocating harm reduction, in honor of World No-Smoking Day.

“For governments seeking to reduce tobacco use, we believe it is time for new, more progressive approaches to be considered,…. [including] Tobacco Harm Reduction,” says Kingsley Wheaton, who directs the Corporate & Regulatory Affairs at BAT.

Of course, e-cigs, theirs in particular, figure importantly among BAT’s preferred list of harm reduction remedies: “One such solution is to offer adult smokers a choice of substantially less risky products such as e-cigarettes.”

One is tempted to feel grateful, of course, were it not for the nagging suspicion that BAT’s harm-production facilities are intended to continue in full swing. Perhaps they are attempting to fulfill the biblical injunction to act is such a way that “the right hand knoweth not what the left hand doeth.” One suspects, however, that BAT’s right hand knoweth full well what its left hand doeth.

Then again, maybe BAT is striving to fulfill Stanton Glantz’s worst nightmare (or maybe it’s his gleeful secret wish) – the disclosure that this whole vaping thing has been a trick by Big Tobacco all along, with the aim of “hooking kids on nicotine”, something the good professor insists upon despite the fact that e-cigs were vigorously marketed in the western hemisphere for a good six years before Big Tobacco got into the act with Lorillard’s acquisition of Blu.

“If e-cigarettes are classified as tobacco products,” Wheaton continues, “then the associated regulatory hurdles will mean smokers will find it harder to access less risky alternatives – this can only be a bad thing for public health.” Of course one can one understand Big Tobacco’s wish to appear on the side of the good guys, and their e-cig undeniably has the same range of smoking-cessation effectiveness as other vaping products. But their clear intent to remain on the bad guys’ side at the same time suggests a touch of, how shall I say it, insincerity?

It is difficult to resist thinking of Lewis Carroll’s “little crocodile”:
“How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!”

It is common, and totally appropriate, to call for more studies of vaping behavior. Of course long term impact on health, vapor toxicity, gateway effects, and the like must remain on the top of our research wish lists. But it would be highly interesting to see a study of product choice in smokers wishing to quit by vaping. Do they prefer to move to the e-cig lines of their preferred cigarette companies, or do they signal their anger at those who have sold them poisons by choosing products offered by independents?

Wheaton acknowledges the simultaneous appeal made by a worldwide group of scientists: “We hope the arguments being made by the scientific community, the industry and public health campaigners will demonstrate the need for policy makers to carefully consider the benefits of tobacco harm reduction and give it their full support.” Of course BAT would love to be part of this club, but maybe the good scientists should check ID before lifting the sheets to this new bedfellow.