E-Cigarette and Sweetener

E-Cigarettes & Sweeteners: Who Needs Facts?

Who needs facts when you know it’s wrong? Though e-cigarettes and low-calorie sweeteners are very different, the angst that they both cause for some health advocates is very similar. Both of them are objectively less harmful than alternatives that might be considered a vice. And both of them are routinely criticized as harmful, despite a dearth of facts to support the criticisms.

Reactions to a new publication in Addiction this week put this phenomenon on display. In their review of available research on e-cigarettes, Peter Hajek and colleagues concluded:

Allowing EC [e-cigarettes] to compete with cigarettes in the market-place might decrease smoking-related morbidity and mortality. Regulating EC as strictly as cigarettes, or even more strictly as some regulators propose, is not warranted on current evidence.

Prof Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, responded with dismay in an interview with BBC:

This report concedes there are huge gaps in our knowledge – yet, incredibly, encourages use of these products. This seems little short of reckless.

Smoking tobacco is a vice that still causes 5 million deaths annually. But even in the absence of any evidence of harm, McKee and others resist providing unfettered access to a demonstrably safer alternative. Abstinence is the virtuous path.

And so it is with alternatives to sugar for sweetening beverages and other foods. Many health advocates are gravely concerned with the very real health impact of excessive sugar consumption. And some of those same advocates promote hypothetical concerns about low-calorie sweeteners. These concerns come despite years of study and evidence-based reviews that point to real benefits and reasonably good assurance of safety.

Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health was recently quoted by the Center for Public Integrity as saying:

There is some element of unknown in most of the artificial sweeteners. Industry will of course say, “This has been approved by the FDA and tested.” But I think the public needs to be aware that this is not absolute evidence of safety.

In the face of such unsubstantiated fears, some people opt for the comfort of “natural” sugar-sweetened beverages instead of sugar-free alternatives.

Absolute evidence of safety — a standard that no food or drug can meet — seems to be the bar that sweeteners and e-cigarettes must meet in the eyes of their detractors.

“Neither abstinence nor excess ever renders man happy.” — Voltaire

Click here to read more on e-cigarettes from BBC and here to read the analysis by Hajek et al. Click here and here to read more on low-calorie sweeteners.

E-Cigarette, photograph © Li Tsin Soon / flickr  |  Sweeteners, photograph © Amy van der Hiel / flickr

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2 Responses to “E-Cigarettes & Sweeteners: Who Needs Facts?”

  1. August 10, 2014 at 8:43 pm, mv said:

    Just because something is vastly safer than it’s counterpart, doesnt mean it’s a therapy. Smoking causes disease. But smoking, in and of itself, is not a disease. It’s a consumer behaviour, and what is required is a safer alternative. Please see this pic: http://i.imgur.com/mTQ7C29.jpg

    • August 11, 2014 at 7:23 am, Ted said:

      Thanks for your comment, mv. I agree that a safer alternative is required for smoking and sugary beverages and a safer alternative is not necessarily therapeutic.