In a historic move, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the marketing of four menthol nicotine vapes. This is the first time that the FDA has authorized a non-tobacco flavored vape, increasing the number of authorized vapes from 23 to 27. 

After extensive scientific review, the agency stated that these vapes meet the high standard of being “appropriate for the protection of public health.” This is a huge, positive step for public health, but many advocacy groups have criticized the move. It’s time for everyone to start recognizing that vapes can save lives.

Thirty million Americans smoke cigarettes, and half of them suffer some smoking-related ailment. Cigarette smoking remains one of the leading causes of preventable death in the United States. Quitting cigarettes is one of the best things that a smoker can do, but it’s also one of the most challenging. Kicking the habit of “cold turkey” is almost a non-starter. And while patches, gums, lozenges and behavioral counseling are options, they don’t work for everyone.

In the addiction treatment world, the philosophy of harm reduction is a proven strategy. When someone is struggling with an addiction or involved in risky behavior, sometimes quitting or abstinence isn’t realistic. In those situations, reducing risk is the best first step. This can apply to cigarette smokers, too. For those who are unable or unwilling to quit cigarettes, moving them to a less harmful alternative is a compassionate and practical approach that yields significant health benefits.

The diseases and cancers that are linked to cigarettes are not caused by nicotine. The process of burning tobacco and paper and inhaling the smoke are the sources of the harmful toxicants. Nicotine vapes are at least 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes because they can deliver the satisfaction of nicotine without the harm of smoke. The technology in vapes that can help eliminate the smoke while also controlling nicotine amounts is a significant innovation that gives people greater control as they try to kick the habit.

Leading researchers and public health experts have been taking this issue one step further over the past few months. Nancy Rigotti, the leading tobacco researcher at Harvard Medical School, published a paper advising doctors to have conversations about vaping with patients who smoke. She pointed to evidence suggesting that “switching completely from smoking combustible cigarettes to vaping nicotine e-cigarettes substantially reduces a person’s exposure to tobacco toxins, reduces respiratory symptoms, and reverses smoking-related physiological changes.”

Brian King, the head of the FDA Center for Tobacco Products, coauthored a paper recommending that medical providers discuss the benefits of vaping with their patients. The paper stated that “for adults who smoke, it is crucial to reinforce the importance of complete transitioning away from smoking to exclusive e-cigarette use in order to realize the full health benefit.” 

While he says that abstinence from tobacco products should be a goal, there’s a clear recognition that vapes should be included in a harm reduction strategy.

The evidence shows clearly that vaping is 95 percent less harmful and that for those looking to quit smoking, vapes might be the best tool to help quit cigarettes for good. 

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has taken it a step further and stated that vapes are as effective as varenicline, the most popular drug prescribed for smoking cessation.

Our collective goal should be to reduce smoking-related illnesses and deaths and to help 30 million smokers kick the cigarette habit once and for all. If the American Cancer Society wants to help reduce cancer, it should support nicotine vapes as a cessation tool. If pharmacies wish to help smokers quit, they should carry vapes in their smoking cessation section. 

The FDA’s move to authorize menthol vapes is meaningful progress in public health. It’s time for everyone else to get on board and help save the lives of millions of American smokers.