Much evidence suggests e-cigarettes are substantially less harmful than combustible cigarettes.
Assuming this is true, we analyze the ethical case for a policy of e-cigarette availability (ECA) as a tobacco harm reduction strategy. ECA involves making e-cigarettes available to allow smokers to switch to them, and informing smokers of the lower risks of e-cigarettes vis-à-vis smoking. After suggesting that utilitarian/consequentialist considerations do not provide an adequate ethical analysis, we analyze ECA using two other ethical frameworks. First, ECA is supported by a public health ethics framework. ECA is a population-level intervention consistent with respecting individual autonomy by using the least restrictive means to accomplish public health goals, and it supports equity and justice.
Second, ECA is supported by four principles that form a biomedical ethics framework. By reducing smokers’ health risks and not harming them, ECA fulfills principles of beneficence and non-maleficence. Because ECA allows smokers to make informed health decisions for themselves, it fulfills the principle requiring respect for persons and their autonomy. Here, we consider whether nicotine addiction and thus ECA undermine autonomy, and also discuss the ethical warrant for special protections for youth.
Finally, ECA can also advance justice by providing a harm reduction alternative for disadvantaged groups that disproportionately bear the devastating consequences of smoking. Policies of differential taxation of cigarettes and e-cigarettes can facilitate adoption of less harmful alternatives by those economically disadvantaged. We conclude that public health and biomedical ethics frameworks are mutually reinforcing and supportive of ECA as a tobacco harm reduction strategy.
Implications: Making e-cigarettes and information about them available is supported as ethical from multiple ethical perspectives.
Rebecca Thomas, MA, Lisa S Parker, PhD, Saul Shiffman, PhD – Nicotine & Tobacco Research – January 1, 2021.