Every 4 seconds, someone in the world dies from the morbidities caused by smoking. However, it is a little-known fact that it’s the smoke that causes disease and death, not nicotine. For those who can’t or won’t quit smoking, tobacco harm reduction products offer a safer alternative to combustible tobacco.
Unfortunately, too many people mistakenly believe that the most dangerous thing about smoking is nicotine. Marginalized communities have the highest prevalence of smoking and, as a result, they suffer the greatest health inequities. Many falsely believe that nicotine causes cancer. When people who smoke perceive nicotine replacement therapy or nicotine vapor products to be as harmful or more harmful than smoking, they are less likely to use less harmful products when attempting to quit smoking.
The widespread misperception about nicotine is due to misinformation. This misinformation is prevalent in media and government messaging and can have detrimental effects on public health. Unfortunately, the number of people believing the misinformation about nicotine vapor products is rising. One of the biggest sources of misinformation is fake news shared on social media. For example, in the United States and the United Kingdom, adults who smoke were less likely to try nicotine vapor products as a harm reduction strategy because of misinformation on Twitter.
There is a real need for informative and accurate information about smoking and nicotine, but most people don’t know where to find the information. A logical resource should be their health care provider. However, most of the time, that would be the wrong choice because 60 percent of nurses incorrectly perceive nicotine as carcinogenic and 72 percent believe that nicotine patches could cause heart attacks. One study found that the majority of physicians in the United States were incorrect when they “strongly agreed” that nicotine directly contributes to the development of cardiovascular disease (83.2 percent), COPD (80.9 percent), and cancer (80.5 percent).
Due to the overwhelming amount of misinformation about nicotine, safer nicotine products are subjected to heavy taxation andregulatory bans. In most places, it remains easier to smoke than it is to access products that reduce risks to people who smoke.
Regulators and public health organizations should be concerned about the public’s lack of knowledge about the relative risks between smoking and reduced-risk nicotine alternatives. The public cannot make informed choices for the good of their health if they are not fully aware of the facts. Barriers to tobacco harm reduction products need to be addressed to ensure the maximum impact on reducing the smoking epidemic.
However, it is not just the public who are confused. Lawmakers, medical professionals, and the media are also woefullymisinformed about nicotine. Those misperceptions can be deadly if it discourages people from transitioning away from the most harmful forms of nicotine to safer nicotine alternatives.
It will take a lot to change minds and dispel the now entrenched, and largely mistaken, mistrust of nicotine. As in many areas of public life, urban myths and half-truths which are ingrained over time are often easier to believe than the truth for many in society. It is difficult to persuade people that the beliefs that they hold are wrong.
For the benefit of public health, there need to be awareness campaigns focusing on the difference between combustible tobacco use and devices that deliver nicotine in a far safer form. The medical profession needs to be better trained on modern harm reduction products in order that they can disseminate accurate information to their patients, especially in areas where smoking rates are high, instead of misinforming them as is currently happening. Media oversight is lacking in this area. It may be true that bad news sells, but the avalanche of inaccurate clickbait scare stories about products that could reduce the burden of smoking-related disease and death must be stemmed.
Consumers deserve accurate information to enable them to make informed choices. The country won’t achieve health equity and social justice if we continue to misinform those who choose to use nicotine in a safe manner.
By Kim Murray | Taxpayers Protection Alliance
Kim Murray is a research fellow at the Taxpayers Protection Alliance Consumer Center.