Academics have drawn an intriguing comparison between e-cigarettes and aspartame – the artificial sweetener developed to replace sugar.
They say that both products have been subjected to undue criticism over health fears even though, when compared to the products they are trying to replace, their overall effects on public health are negligible at worst.
It’s a powerful comparison and one that doesn’t bode well for e-cigs: aspartame has been the subject of decades of consumer criticism and pushback. And it seems e-cigs could be in for a similar long-term fight.
Recent numbers from the Health Information National Trends Survey in the U.S. show how widespread the opinion is that e-cigarettes are just as harmful as conventional cigarettes or even more harmful.
32.8% of those surveyed considered them just as harmful as combustibles, while 2.7% thought they were more harmful and 2% thought they were much more harmful, a combined total of about 38% of people. The only other answer comparable to this was “not knowing enough about the products”, with 33.9% of people falling into that group.
Around a quarter of people said e-cigs were less harmful (20.6%) or much less harmful (5.3%) than cigarettes.
This shows how the reduced-risk message is seemingly being lost; one reason, certainly is the insistence by many academics and public-health officials on drawing a binary harm/no-harm line on tobacco products which sees abstinence as the only solution and effectively denies the existence of reduced risk.
Yet continued insistence that e-cigs cannot be proven 100% safe, while technically true, is missing the wood for the trees. As e-cig proponents state over and over again, the products should only be discussed in terms of reduced risk compared to conventional cigarettes – not in comparison to breathing alpine air, as one scholar put it.
Sweet and sour
Much the same applies to aspartame. Is there a chance of long-term risk from heavy use? Potentially. But the long-term use (it doesn’t even have to be heavy use) of sugar – the substance to which aspartame should be compared – carries significantly more potential for serious harm.
Of course, there is a chance that consuming an inordinately large amount of aspartame over the course of a lifetime might increase the likelihood of developing cancer. But consuming sugar in even a proportion of that quantity will almost certainly lead to an earlier death through diabetes, obesity or related complications.
This being the case, it becomes a question of why these anti-scientific convictions persist.
Tarred with the same brush?
Adam Houston and David Sweanor, the academics drawing the parallel, wonder whether it’s an industry problem. After all, companies in both the food and tobacco industries have sometimes acted unethically, using remarkably similar tactics such as marketing products to kids or expanding into developing territories where regulations are not so stiff.
There is also an issue of public scepticism concerning new products, which is healthy and should be encouraged in many instances. However, as Houston and Sweanor say, “it makes little sense to focus on theoretical, minuscule or entirely bogus harms without reference to the serious, well-defined harms of existing products that these innovations might help address”.
Aspartame now has a long history of scientific scrutiny. E-cigarettes are just beginning that course. But those keen to encourage (or defend) vaping should learn from aspartame’s continued image problems and start combating misinformation early on.
Of course, there is a fine line between combating misinformation and being a swivel-eyed loon. It can also be tough to shake the label of corporate stooge or shill for Big Tobacco that many would automatically associate with those who argue the case for e-cigarettes.
And there’s the difficulty of targeting the right audience. Anyone trying an e-cig is likely to be somewhat aware of the real level of health concerns. Yet getting informative messages in front of non-smokers which might influence public opinion is fraught with its own difficulties – both legally and in terms of PR perception.
It is a problem with no easy answer, as the long survival of many objectively counterproductive myths attests to.
Photo: Steve Snodgrass