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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Columbia Professors Study the E-Cigarettes Debate

A paper by Mailman School of Public Health professors Dr. Amy Fairchild and Dr. Ronald Bayer, titled “Smoke and Fire over E-Cigarettes: Risk, Trade-Offs, and the Politics of Protection,” warns against the ideological extreme of “deep precaution” held by those opposing e-cigarettes. The e-cigarette debate, according to the authors, is divided into two camps: harm reduction and the precautionary impulse. The first accepts that people will use nicotine and sees e-cigarettes as an opportunity to limit tobacco-related death and disease. The second, precautionary camp has been molded by the experience of fighting Big Tobacco; in their view, e-cigarettes are little more than a Trojan horse bent on increasing profits through predatory practices; and accepting any lesser harms, would mean being duped by industry and risk losing ground in the long war against smoking. The paper is published online in Science Magazine.

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[Photo: Dr. Amy Fairchild and Dr. Ronald Bayer]

In its most extreme interpretation, so-called “deep green” precaution, which they explain has its roots in environmentalism, “any suspicion of harm should be sufficient to trigger prohibition even in the absence of scientific evidence and without regard to cost.” A letter by outspoken e-cigarette precautionist Dr. Stanton Glantz and others to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, Drs. Fairchild and Bayer argue, “only recognizes the potential benefits of erecting barriers to e-cigarettes without considering the potential toll measured by lives lost to combustible products,” namely tobacco. The WHO ultimately sided with the precautionists.

Drs. Fairchild and Bayer conclude: “It is imperative to recognize that deep precaution … has served as a kind of trump argument, hostile to the notion of trade-offs, seeing in them perilous compromise. Such a posture does not serve either science or policy well.”