It's time to think about New Year's resolutions. Quitting smoking, appropriately, is at the top of many lists.
Now, 2010 was the first full year that the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, regulated tobacco, but with its new powers, did it do anything to make it easier for smokers to quit when we ring in the New Year?
The answer is not only a resounding "no," it is worse: The government, as well as many government-funded anti-smoking groups, is making it harder for smokers to give up the deadly habit.
The FDA and groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids oppose the use of "tobacco harm reduction," which is the use of less harmful products than cigarettes to help people quit smoking.
Late last year, the FDA warned about the safety of electronic or E-cigarettes and began a campaign to keep them away from smokers. E-cigarettes not only supply "clean" nicotine, but also look like cigarettes -- many even have an LED light at the tip. These products, which contain no actual tobacco, are noncombustible. While nicotine is addictive, it isn't particularly harmful. It is like the caffeine in soda: It makes you want to drink more, but it isn't what packs on the pounds -- the calories from the sugar.
E-cigarettes are being used by many smokers to quit smoking real cigarettes. But the FDA, which found tiny levels of carcinogens in some E-cigarettes, is doing everything it can to keep smokers from getting their hands on this far less dangerous product.
The FDA's strategy entails calling for E-cigarettes to go through expensive testing that medicines and drug devices have to endure, rather than have them regulated more loosely, ironically, as are their more dangerous cousin, cigarettes.
While we'd certainly benefit from a review of their safety, as well as their efficacy as cessation devices, you don't need to be a heart surgeon to know they aren't as dangerous as the real thing. Just this month, the FDA sought to overturn a court decision that denied it the right to confiscate E-cigarettes shipped from overseas.
Meanwhile, some states and municipalities seek to ban the use of E-cigarettes everywhere that smoking is already prohibited.
Similarly, the FDA and activist groups oppose the use of snus, or smokeless tobacco, as a means of harm reduction.
Manufacturers describe snus as "spit-free" pouches of smokeless tobacco. Studies from Sweden show that snus has been used effectively to help smokers quit smoking cigarettes. Again, snus isn't a "safe" product, but it is up to 99 times safer than cigarettes. But so-called "health groups" are making it a priority to stop smokers from using snus here. And the FDA and other agencies are leading the charge in the fight against tobacco harm reduction.
This "quit or die" approach is hard to defend. Even with nicotine replacement therapy such as gum or the patch, fewer than 15 percent of people trying to quit manage to remain off cigarettes for as long as six months.
The best argument puritanical activists and government regulators make is that tobacco companies aren't trying to get people to switch; rather, they are trying to keep smokers addicted by training them to use smokeless tobacco in areas where smoking isn't allowed.
But this so-called "dual use" argument is dubious. The reason companies haven't been more persuasively encouraging smokers to switch to smokeless is because it would be against the new tobacco control law. Tobacco companies are forbidden from telling consumers a simple, critical, and undeniable fact: Smokeless tobacco is not as harmful as cigarette smoking.
But now, at least one tobacco company is taking the "switch" argument directly to smokers who want to quit smoking. In (what shouldn't actually be) provocative new ads, Reynolds America's "Smoke-Free Resolution" campaign, the company is telling smokers they can quit smoking by using snus. The ads ignore the best argument to switch, which is that the product is less likely to kill you. And for that, we have the government and the "health" activists to blame.
The best thing for smokers to do is to quit tobacco completely. But the multitudes who have tried and failed should not despair. They should tell the nanny-staters to "butt out" so they can realistically resolve to quit smoking, this time with the help of less harmful approaches such as E-cigarettes and snus.