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Are Safer Cigarettes a Corporate Ploy, and FDA Mistake?

Bicknell Lecture tomorrow delves into tobacco regulation


Antismoking advocates recently pushed through legislation that gives the Food and Drug Administration broad new powers to regulate tobacco. The legislation requires that health warnings on tobacco products be larger, bans candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes, and sets other sales restrictions, seen by some as major steps in the campaign to reduce smoking.

But it also puts the federal government in the most unusual position of endorsing products known to cause thousands of deaths each year.

Public health advocates say the legislation offers powerful lessons about political compromise, the role of the federal government in protecting public health, and the power of industry. This year’s William J. Bicknell Lectureship in Public Health, being held tomorrow, October 23, at the BU School of Public Health, will take a deep draw on these issues.

Gregory Connolly, a professor of the practice of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health, will speak on the topic Is There Such a Thing as a Safe(r) Cigarette? Tobacco and FDA Regulation.

A panel discussion with Patrick Basham of the Democracy Institute, Cheryl Healton of the American Legacy Foundation, and Michael Siegel, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the BU School of Public Health, will follow Connolly’s talk. The event is free and open to the public and includes an audience question-and-answer session.

Siegel, an expert on tobacco control, frames some issues surrounding the FDA’s new powers to regulate tobacco in anticipation of the lecture.

BU Today: This new legislation gives the FDA authority to regulate cigarettes, a step advocates say will make them safer. What’s your view?
The issue we need to think about is whether or not there is even such a thing as a safer cigarette. The mandate the FDA has been given is to develop one. Is that even possible? What would a safer cigarette look like? How is the FDA supposed to develop one? There’s no guidance in the law, except to say that they can lower the level of certain constituents, such as nicotine and other chemicals. But even if it’s possible to create a cigarette that somehow lowers the risk, would it be beneficial to public health?

Won’t smoking be safer if the FDA limits toxins in tobacco products?
If the FDA issues a mandate that cigarettes are safer, more adults may start smoking or more youth may start. Cigarette companies did the same thing for many years: Marlboro Lights and Camel Lights were an attempt to market a safer cigarette. But these are not safer. Because they’ve lowered the delivery of nicotine and other substances, people inhale more deeply and smoke more. What these products also have done is inhibit people from quitting because people who otherwise might have quit now think, I’m switching to a safer cigarette, so I don’t have to quit.

So is it really in the public health interest to mandate a safer cigarette, when that may undermine the public’s appreciation of the hazards of smoking? Is the way to intervene on this issue to take out some of the toxins, or do you put your efforts into trying to get people not to smoke?

You’ve criticized the FDA for coming down hard on e-cigarettes, battery-powered devices that provide tobaccoless doses of nicotine in a vaporized solution. Some argue that e-cigarettes appear to be a relatively safe and effective quit-smoking device — what do you make of the FDA warnings about their possible harmful ingredients?
The presence of e-cigarettes essentially nullifies the entire FDA search for a safer cigarette. Since we now have a nontobacco product available that is acceptable to smokers as a substitute, it makes any reduced risk tobacco product inappropriate. If you know you have a product that doesn’t deliver tobacco, just nicotine, why would the federal government tell the public to use a product that does contain tobacco? Isn’t there a contradiction here if the FDA bans electronic cigarettes, but sanctions tobacco cigarettes?

Why should people who don’t care about smoking care about this?
The issue is much bigger than smoking. The fact that the federal government is now in the business of approving or disapproving cigarettes for sale means it is involved in the sale and marketing of a deadly product. Doesn’t this undermine the system of public health, when you have an agency whose mission is to make sure that our food and drug supply is safe approving deadly products? Doesn’t this make the federal government complicit in the tobacco epidemic?

It seems antismoking groups had to make some concessions to Big Tobacco to win gains in warning labels and advertising restrictions. Isn’t that the nature of political compromise?
I look at the legislation and see a bill that absolutely protects the tobacco companies’ interests — specifically Philip Morris. It gives the FDA a mandate, setting up impossible standards for new products to enter the market. It ensures that existing products will be institutionalized and protected from competition.

It raises the questions: what is the role of political compromise, and what is real compromise if you have to have the support of your opponent on every point? These questions are applicable to other issues, such as the health-care legislation Congress is debating. If the only way you can get health care through is to bring insurance companies on board, is the result really worth it?

Those are some of the issues we’ll be discussing.

The William J. Bicknell Lectureship in Public Health was established at SPH in 1999 to bring lectures by stimulating iconoclasts and original thinkers to the school, stretching the minds of students and faculty. The lectureship is endowed by a gift from William J. Bicknell, founding chairman of the SPH department of international health and a professor of international health. The lecture is tomorrow, Friday, October 23, from 9 a.m. to noon, in the first floor auditorium of 670 Albany St., on the BU Medical Campus. A continental breakfast will be available at 8:30 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Seth Rolbein can be reached at srolbein@bu.edu.


16 Comments on Are Safer Cigarettes a Corporate Ploy, and FDA Mistake?

  • Vapor on 10.22.2009 at 5:34 am

    Electronic Cigarettes

    “The presence of e-cigarettes essentially nullifies the entire FDA search for a safer cigarette.”

    I use an electronic cigarette and really don’t understand the FDA’s stance on the product. As a smoking replacement product, I believe that it does less harm than a real cigarette. I believe this enough to talk my Mother into using one and sending it to her as a gift.

    I’ve seen the benefits of not smoking real cigarettes and changing to an e-cig after 30 years of smoking.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2009 at 10:02 am

    “These questions are applicable to other issues, such as the health-care legislation Congress is debating. If the only way you can get health care through is to bring insurance companies on board, is the result really worth it?”

    – IMO NO –

    I am currently being threatened by Blue Cross lawyer’s because I refuse to answer their letters and phone calls requesting more information on a medical incident.

    Since when is it my obligation as a patient to help an insurance company compile information to use to attack my medical provider? The hospital provided medical care. The health insurance company is adding grief, expense and paperwork to the process.

    Please – let’s skip the ‘compromises’ and demand a single payer monopoly health care like the rest of the civilized world has had for over 30 years.

    – – –

  • VocalEK on 10.22.2009 at 1:02 pm


    The safer cigarette is already here. The electronic cigarette contains no tobacco. It delivers no tar, no carbon monoxide, and no heavy metals. It is overwhelmingly acceptable to tobacco smokers as a substitute. Of regular users, 80.6% report they have completely stopped smoking tobacco and another 18.7% have reduced their intake. Users have reported elimination or reduction of wheezing, coughing, and dependence on asthma medication, improved lung function (measured by FEV), better blood pressure numbers, and lower cholesterol. If that doesn’t spell “S-A-F-E-R” then the standards truly are impossible.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2009 at 4:45 pm


    Thank you Dr Siegel for representing a large group of individuals who have discovered this safer alternative to tobacco. I personally thank you for all you’ve done to speak out on our behalf!

    The FDA may have the “right” to ban pv’s/e-cigarettes, but it goes against the very foundation they were built on. If they are truly concerned with public saftey, why would they keep tobacco legal and ban this much safer alternative? The only possible conclusion is to protect their funding as opposed to protecting the saftey of the public. It blatantly shows where their priorities are.

    I was a 3 pack per day smoker for nearly 40 years. I have used a pv exclusively for almost a year. I truly believe this device has the potential to save millions of lives.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2009 at 5:25 pm

    Electronic Cigarettes

    Dr. Siegel has my eternal gratitude for his efforts to keep the e-cig available. It’s the only thing between me and a 30+ year, pack-a-day habit. Without it–as much as I hate to admit it–I’ll likely go right back to smoking.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2009 at 10:42 pm

    “The issue we need to think about is whether or not there is even such a thing as a safer cigarette”

    Wow… honestly? This is either easy to answer, or impossible, depending on what you consider a cigarette. I would consider anything that delivers nicotine to the system as a cigarette, such as electric cigarettes, which all formulas used in their cartridges have less chemicals than regular cigarettes.

    Nicotine is just an addictive stimulant, like caffeine is. Quitting either one results in withdraws, which seems a little harsher on nicotine users.

  • E-Cig Guy on 10.26.2009 at 1:27 am

    Electronic Cigarettes are as safe as?

    One question i’ve been contemplating that i would have loved to ask is “once you remove the smoke from smoking and turn it into pure nicotine, how dangerous is it really compared to other things?”

    I know nicotine is a bit dangerous in ways, especially to the cardiovascular system, but compared to other things how dangerous is nicotine use? I watch TV commercials each day where FDA approved drugs warn you that “in some cases use may result in death” or “may cause intense feelings of suicide”.

    From my research so far the main danger of smoking is smoke. Remove that and we turn smoking into a far less dangerous activity. Is it comparable to eating fat? Playing football? having sex? getting an abortion?

    We have government programs that pass out methadone to heroin addicts because we recognize how hard it is for them to quit. But smokers we say “either buck up and just quit or keep smoking the Phillip Morris brand, pay the $3 per pack taxes to help us provide children’s health care until you die”?

    Just doesn’t seem logical.

  • rehab centers on 10.30.2009 at 7:43 am

    a cigarette is a cigarette at the end of the day.just giving it new names is not going to lessen its effect on our health.the sooner we realise this, the better.

  • Jill on 10.30.2009 at 11:48 am

    The irrational war on the ecig is becoming more and more apparent every day.

    Jill H,
    Electric Cigarette Inc

  • Buzz on 11.02.2009 at 9:58 am

    I just broke my ankle VERY BADLY , my doctor said you HAVE to quit smoking in order to heal correctly ! , man after 35 years of smoking and trying patches/gum/Chantix ( dont kill yourself , had depression from Chantix ! )and cold turkey I could NOT QUIT

    I found E-Cigs on the web and decided to try them , I bought a starter pack with NO NICOTINE in the liquid just to see how they were ( doctor said NO nicotine either NO patches etc. ) after 2 days of using the E-Cig I cut my smoking by 70 % with NO NICOTINE !!!! I can only say that the act of simulated smoking helped me slow down.

    The FDA is on CRACK or they need the $$$$ , testing 2 of the hundreds of E-cigs out there and making a blanket statement that they are all bad is crackpot science !

    No levels of contaminants are mentioned ( qty matters !! ) hell CHANTRIX will make you KILL YOURSELF they even tell you that WTF .

    Anyhow as a 35 years smoker I DO NOT trust the FDA to create a SAFER cig with Phillip Morris ( what the hell are they doing in bed anyhow ? imagine the children they will produce )

  • Scotty McKirahan on 11.26.2009 at 6:03 am

    The FDA is corrupt

    Kudos to Dr. Siegel for his stance on electric cigarettes. Like all things involving government, politics and big business, you simply need to follow the money.

    The FDA has chosen to alarm the public by stating that diethylene glycol was a product used in antifreeze. They failed,however, to point out that it is also a product found in cough syrup, toothpaste and mouthwash, amongst other things and that only trace amounts of diethylene glycol was found in a small sample of the tested cartridges.

    The FDA also neglected to point out that the single carcinogen found was an immeasurable trace amount found in ony one of the seventeen electric cigarette cartridges tested and that the particular carcinogen in question is also found in higher quantities in FDA-approved products like the patch.

    The FDA will collect approximately $23 million from Big Tobacco in 2009, increasing to $235 million in 2010 and ballooning to $712 million in 2019. The FDA is anything but an unbiased, impartial judge regarding the safety of electric cigarette devices or in the regulation of the tobacco industry as a whole.

    This organization is a fraud. They are in bed with the companies that they are supposed to be regulating. As far as I’m concerned, the FDA stands for “For Drugging America.”

  • Anonymous on 11.27.2009 at 1:20 pm

    What other Scientists had to Say about Electronic Cigarettes

    2. E Cigarettes pose dangers for both smokers and non-smokers.

    There is no existing evidence that e-cigarettes pose a risk for nonsmokers. The nicotine exposure from the exhaled vapor produced the the vapor is likely to be extremely small and there is no reason to think that it poses a danger for nonsmokers. But there certainly is no evidence to suggest that it poses a hazard.

    Read more: Scientists Examine ASH Smoking Claims | the Science of Electronic Cigarettes
    from http://electroniccigarettespot.com

    I found what these scientists had to say in response to many of the anti smoking groups to be quite interesting. I wish I had heard this talk as well. Why is it that these people are not the ones being interviewed more often??

    Way to go BU for talking to someone like Michael Siegel!

  • Anonymous on 11.28.2009 at 4:52 am


    I say amen! Brothers and Sisters! There is a God in Heaven! Our Salvation is at hand, and it is in our hands in the form of an e-cigarette! Why on Earth would the FDA simply discard this wonderful alternative and banished smokers to a stinking, sulfurous , early death is beyond comprehension. They have their head up their ears! Let us all fight to keep this product on the markets, for we are LEGION!

  • Green Smoke E-Cigarettes on 01.15.2010 at 3:23 am

    I think it will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Judge Leon just gave the FDA a slap for trying to stop the import of e-cigs, some places are allowing them because it doesn’t violate the Clean Air act and some cities, like NJ are restricting the sale and use. We’ll see a lot of battles over the next year or two.

  • Ryan on 05.03.2010 at 10:48 pm

    I agree 100% with the expert’s stance on the FDA’s regulation on electronic cigarettes and tobacco in general. The war being waged on electronic cigarettes is completely based on special interests and it is painfully obviously not based on education or real research.

    I’m sick to my stomach due to the unfounded attempts to regulate/ban electronic cigarettes. Taking an hour to research credible resources and user reviews of electronic cigarettes and most people should be able to see for themselves all of the advantages of electronic cigarettes.

    Thanks for the great interview and post.

  • Home on 01.17.2014 at 9:20 am

    People do use e-cigarettes as a tool to stop smoking tobacco, it does not necessarily mean they will in fact stop vaping. Some people enjoy it, some people do end up quitting everything altogether. It comes down to the individual in the end and only years upon years of studies will show the actual trends. To say that vaping are a gateway to smoking is just an assumption at this point with no hard evidence to prove that whatsoever.

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