An Interview with ECigarette Expert Dr Joel Nitzkin (Part 3)
ECD: Health groups such as Cancer America are concerned that the existence of an alternative to smoking will prevent smokers from quitting, and may encourage young people to take up smoking. Is this a concern you share?
Dr Nitzkin: Yeah, this is a major concern. And this is a concern - and keep in mind with the FDA tobacco bill, it was negotiated between the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the Phillip Morris company.
The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids has as their only concern keeping children and teenagers from initiating tobacco use. In their minds all tobacco and tobacco related products are evil and any time you add any new product to the marketplace you increase the risk of teens initiating tobacco use. So they are therefore unalterably opposed to the addition of any new tobacco or tobacco related products to the market place because in their minds until proven otherwise the impact of that product will be to dramatically increase teen use of nicotine. I know of no research that has been done on this point. Every one of the e-cigarette companies I have talked to have claimed that they do not market their product to teenagers but neither are our cigarettes ostensibly marketed to teenagers, so there would have to be some other studies done to determine the extent to which teenagers use e-ciagrettes or any of these other products
ECD: I'm just thinking that when I was a kid there was a certain kind of child who would take up smoking. And part of the attraction was that it was bad for you and it was forbidden. I'm just wondering if the sort of child who is going to do that is going to take up smoking whether it is cigarettes or e-cigarettes...
Dr Nitzkin: Well, my guess is that if somebody like that is going to take up a product they're going to take up the real thing not fake cigarettes. And what they use and whether or not they use it will be largely dependent on what their peers use, their friends and what they see their parents using in the home.
ECD: So there is a danger of that...
Dr Nitzkin: There is a danger. We don't know how much of a danger there is. Now let me put it yet another way. Cigarettes currently cause 400,000 deaths a year in the United States. If we get all those smokers to switch from regular cigarettes to e cigarettes or one of the other alternate nicotine delivery products we would eventually reduce that death toll from 400,000 a year to less than 4000 a year, maybe as low as 400 a year. Now, if we addicted every man, woman and child in the United States to e-cigarettes - we currently have 20% of the American population using tobacco products - and we'd multiply that by 5, so even at our worst estimates of 4000 deaths a year you'd have 20,000 deaths a year that's still a huge reduction from 400,000 a year.
ECD: And if you then if you take that world wide...
Dr Nitzkin: Yeah... so there are unanswered questions, and a lot would have to do with how the products are marketed, how they are regulated and so on but every time you introduce a new product to the marketplace you do add a risk that there will be some teenagers that will be attracted to that product that otherwise would not be attracted to cigarettes.
Let me point out one factor in particular. Women tend to be very concerned about their weight. People smoke or take up smoking and one of the major reasons for women to smoke is that it resets their body weight limit and generally they can expect to lose anywhere from 5 to 7 or 8 pounds and maintain that weight loss. That for many women is a lot of weight and the reason they keep smoking. If women think that there is a product out there that doesn't carry the risks of smoking or the yellow stained fingers of smoking, that will enable them to lose this weight, such a product could be very attractive to a large number of young women.
ECD: One question I didn't send you before our interview but is something that worries me is that if the electronic cigarette is as safe as experts like you think isn't it ethically wrong to remove the choice from people of having a safer smoking alternative? I mean the information is out there, the debate is out there, the product assessment is out there - shouldn't smokers be allowed to make their own choice?
Dr Nitzkin: Well, we think so but that is not the prevailing opinion here in the United States. The problem is, dating back to the 1960's and the original surgeon general's reports on tobacco and tobacco related illness they did not differentiate between deaths due to cigarettes and deaths due to other tobacco products. And they set as the national goal a tobacco free society. Once you subscribe to the concept of a tobacco free society you then consider all tobacco and tobacco related products as equally harmful no matter what the science says. I mean you feel that it would be in the best interest of American society to stop any new tobacco products from entering the marketplace. Their goal quite frankly is prohibition.
ECD: So similar to the prohibition on alcohol...
Dr Nitzkin: Yes.
ECD: And do you think it would be as unsuccessful?
Dr Nitzkin: Well, I think if they moved in that direction what you would see is a lot of illegal sales and a lot of smuggling. But not only that, even with that smuggling you would not get anywhere near the health benefits that you could if the products were legal and their was honest communication about the relative health risk.
ECD: The Tobacco bill has raised a lot off opposition from those involved in Tobacco Harm Reduction. Could you explain the concerns over the tobacco bill?
Dr Nitzkin: There was a document we posted on our website just a couple of days ago. That listed our proposed amendments to the tobacco bill and the amendments to deal with the issues we think should be changed, number one is a friendly and positive attitude towards harm reduction, to invite the products into the market place but then through manufacturing and quality control and post market sureveillance assure the safety and do the research needed to adjust our estimates.
Number two remove other limitations from the regulatory agency having to do largely with marketing concerns and issues.
The third one, I am speaking off the top of my head without looking at the document, has to do with the cigarette warnings as a specific issue because the warnings for any smokeless product says: "Warning - this product is not a safe alternative to cigarettes". And that wording has convinced 87% of American smokers that all tobacco products are equally hazardous.
Then the fourth change is we question the choice of the Food and Drug Administration as the regulatory agency because by doing it it creates a situation whereby the food and drug administration is certifying the safety of current cigarettes as they are currently formulated.
Finally we feel that the bill has to give the federal agency independent authorisation to do health education post market surveillance and research not by the individual tobacco companies but by the federal agency that paid for through the tobacco company user fees. But you know another way of looking at our concern is the fact that this piece of legislation has been sold to health organisations to endorse and to congressmen here in the United States to sponsor using a summary in the description of the bill which is extremely inaccurate and which does not reflect the actual impact the bill will have if passed.
ECD: Given the concerns raised by doctors and tobacco harm reduction activists like yourself, what, in your opinion, is the main motivation for pushing the bill through?
Dr Nitzkin: In the early 1990's when Richard Kessler, who was then the Secretary of the Food and Drug Administration Agency, tried to regulate cigarettes. The Supreme Court said he couldn't do so without Congressional authorisation. Since then, key legislators in both houses of congress have been trying to develop and pass a bill that would give the federal government authority to regulate tobacco products. After all those years of working on this issue, they seem to have reached a point where they don't care what the bill says they just want to pass a bill to get their foot in the door. They have this bill which is severely flawed bill but it has the votes to pass so they want to pass it. They want to claim that now there there will be federal regulation of tobacco products, even it is totally dysfunctional. This is one of the reasons why they are trying to push it as is, with no amendments. They succeeded in doing that in the House of Representatives. It looks like they are going to try and do the same thing in the Senate.
Many thanks to Dr Nitzkin for making the time available for this interview.