Years ago at a conference I attended, we had a discussion going about how much misleading information was present in materials which were aimed at getting people to stop or not start smoking. One of the more persistent ideas was that nicotine was poisonous. But a doctor who worked at an addictions clinic said that he supported leaving that in place because they had found that that one characterization had been their most effective tool in getting smokers to stop and stay stopped.
Later that day, my colleague asked me if I could stop my daughter from ever trying smoking just by telling one lie, would I do it?
Its easy enough to just say no because of course not only might one lie lead to another but any one lie would make all other communications suspect. But we are talking about parental impulses here and as much as I believe that everyone has the right to make their own choices about these things, and that there are worse things she could be doing, the thought of her drawing smoke into her pristeen lungs is not a pleasant one. I still said no.
But this question of whether it is permissible to lie (or deliberately manipulate popular pre-existing false beliefs) if it serves the greater good will always be with us.
In tobacco harm reduction we think that the most important thing is that people who use or might use tobacco should know about the health risks and should be aware (and have available) all the safer nicotine alternatives. Smoking is a choice but it should be within the context of the knowledge that there are safer ways to get nicotine. I guess one way of looking at it is, though for some people smoking is the best nicotine option given their circumstances, for many smokers that is not the case, and with that in mind, a decline in the number of smokers is a positive development.
So we want people to have options, but we would like to see smoking become less common. And not because it is smoking but because of those avoidable diseases.
We really would like to see smokers move to using smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes but we have not used the fears of 2nd hand and 3rd hand smoke to do so. You will see some vendors using these arguments but we have not. And the temptation is there because tapping into those misperceptions could be quite effective. But the problem is that we don’t believe that stuff and we also like to think that one of the strict dividing lines between the standard anti-smoking dogma and our own is one of paying attention to the evidence.
Its more than just a question of strategies.
If we are evidence bound it means that we have to ignore certain tools and it means that when the evidence changes we have to change as well. We have that slight overlap with the anti-smoking groups of wanting to see the numbers of smokers decline but for us it is because that would indicate a healthier population and for them it just seems to be an aim in itself. Since they are ready to use each and every tool to fight smoking (including vilification) their movement is safe from any changes in the science.
For instance, if a week from now, incontrovertible evidence came out that smoking had about the same risk as using smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes, and people knew about it, we would be out of business.
This is also about the larger ethical implications. If we do not base our actions on what we think is the true picture of the world, then by extension we sanction others to knowingly manipulate our beliefs and actions with false information.
-Paul L. Bergen