Is the FDA clearing up misperceptions – or is it sending mixed signals?

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seems to be looking for the right words to educate smokers about reduced-risk tobacco and nicotine products.

At least, this is what the agency’s Center for Tobacco Products (CTP) director Brian King implied in a commentary on an article published in the scientific journal Addiction.

His statements drew conclusions from a survey on misperceptions of tobacco product harmfulness. The survey found that only around 20% of US adult cigarette smokers believed e-cigarettes contained fewer harmful chemicals than cigarettes and, among them, only half considered vaping less harmful than smoking.

“There are no safe tobacco products,” King wrote. “However, tobacco products exist on a continuum of risk, with smoked products, such as cigarettes, having the greatest risk.”

The second part of that statement, at least, is very much one that the advocates of reduced-risk products would agree with.

King referred to existing opportunities to “educate adult smokers about the relative risks of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, using evidence-based approaches” and said both government and non-governmental stakeholders should participate in these efforts.

But the CTP’s director seems to assume that the FDA is already doing its part by funding research in public health communication and carrying out initiatives such as The Real Cost education campaign, which King cited as an example of communication aimed at preventing initiation to tobacco products among young people.

Yet there is a fundamental contradiction in the FDA’s communication policy on the risks associated with tobacco products.


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    A half-hearted approach


    “It’s puzzling how the FDA expects the public to navigate these mixed signals,” said harm-reduction activist Dale Staten. “How will you simultaneously warn youth of exaggerated harms while telling adults that e-cigarettes are a much safer alternative?”

    King has been highlighting the need to fight misinformation over the different risks related to smoking and less-harmful tobacco products since he took up his job, but this hasn’t led to any significant change in the FDA’s tobacco policies, especially as far as communication is concerned.

    “The agency does a piss-poor job at relating the relative risks that exist among the differing tobacco and vapour products,” said Lindsey Stroud, founder of Tobacco Harm Reduction 101 and director of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

    The problem is that while the FDA is – understandably – very vocal in its warnings about the use of tobacco and nicotine products by under-age consumers, it is half-hearted, even timid, in its advocacy of their use as smoking-cessation tools by adults.

    As a result, the negative messages drown out the positive, and even if the agency sees itself as acknowledging a continuum of risk, that’s not what the public hears from it.

    – Tiziana Cauli TobaccoIntelligence staff

    Photo: Chinh Le Duc

    Tiziana Cauli

    Senior reporter/health & science editor
    Tiziana is an Italian journalist from Sardinia. She has worked for both international and local media in Italy, South Africa, France, Spain, the UK, Lebanon and Belgium. She also worked as a communications manager for several international NGOs in the humanitarian sector. Tiziana holds a degree in Political Science and a PhD in African Studies from the University of Cagliari and she’s a graduate of the Carlo De Martino school of journalism in Milan.