Academic journal article Perspectives in Public Health

Reducing the Harm from Smoking

Academic journal article Perspectives in Public Health

Reducing the Harm from Smoking

Article excerpt

Opinion among public health professionals was divided on harm reduction in drug use in the 1980s and later on sexual health in the 1990s. It is proving no less controversial for tobacco control in the 21st century.

Every year in the United Kingdom, smoking causes around 100,000 deaths, making it the largest cause of preventable death in the UK and killing more people than the next five largest causes combined. Smoking rates are falling, but not fast enough. At about the same time as UK smoke-free laws came into force, a recreational nicotine-containing product (NCP) appeared on the market. E-cigarettes were designed to look like cigarettes but deliver refined nicotine in a suspension of propylene glycol. These products caught the interest of smokers only gradually and by 2010 fewer than 10% of smokers had ever tried them.

In the 2008 Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) report Beyond Smoking Kills, Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) joined with over 100 other health organisations to call for a new plan for tobacco control. The report included a call, not only to provide smokers with alternatives to smoking in the form of commercially available pure nicotine products, but also for a regulatory system that would ensure that these products are safe and effective. Separating the nicotine from the tobacco and smoke made some colleagues optimistic about the prospects of substituting smoking, while the cigarette-like appearance of many NCPs made others wary about the risk of making smoking look normal to children again. In 2013, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) produced public health guidance on tobacco harm reduction linked to proposals requiring NCPs to be licensed as medicines by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). 'Light touch' medicines regulation was proposed to ensure that products delivered nicotine safely without being marketed to non-smokers, especially children.

The ASH strategy has been to maintain a public health consensus in support of medicines regulation, but this has not been without its critics. Some harm-reduction enthusiasts claim that medicine regulation will keep smokers smoking while some harm-reduction sceptics argue that the risk of creating role models for what looks to children like smoking outweighs any possible quits among adult smokers. Nowhere are the differences more deeply held than on public use of electronic cigarettes. Proponents of 'renormalisation' argue that the last place you should be allowed to take nicotine is a hospital while supporters of harm reduction respond that banning the use of licensed medicines from hospital grounds would be perverse. …

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