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Carrie Wade, Ph.D., MPH is the Director of Harm Reduction Policy and Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute.

Abstinence approaches work exceedingly well on an individual level but continue to fail when applied to populations. We can see this in several areas: teen pregnancy; continued drug use regardless of severe criminal penalties; and high smoking rates in vulnerable populations, despite targeted efforts to prevent youth and adult uptake.

The good news is that abstinence-oriented prevention strategies do seem to have a positive effect on smoking. Overall, teen use has steadily declined since 1996. This may be attributed to an increase in educational efforts to prevent uptake, stiff penalties for retailers who fail to verify legal age of purchase, the increased cost of cigarettes, and a myriad of other interventions.

Unfortunately many are left behind. Populations with lower levels of educational attainment, African Americans and, ironically, those with less disposable income have smoking rates two to three times that of the general population. In light of this, how can we help people for whom the abstinence-only message has failed? Harm reduction strategies can have a positive effect on the quality of life of smokers who cannot or do not wish to quit.

Why harm reduction?

Harm reduction approaches recognize that reduction in risky behavior is one possible means to address public health goals. They take a pragmatic approach to the consequences of risk behaviors – focusing on short-term attainable goals rather than long-term ideals—and provide options beyond abstinence to decrease harm relative to the riskier behavior.

In economic terms, traditional public health approaches to drug use target supply and demand, which is to say they attempt to decrease the supply of a drug while also reducing the demand for it. But this often leads to more risky behaviors and adverse outcomes. For example, when prescription opioids were restricted, those who were not deterred from such an inconvenience switched to heroin; when heroin became tricky to smuggle, traffickers switched to fentanyl. We might predict the same effects when it comes to cigarettes.

Given this, since we know that the riskiest of behaviors, such as tobacco, alcohol and other drug use will continue—and possibly flourish in many populations—we should instead focus on ways to decrease the supply of the most dangerous methods of use and increase the supply of and demand for safer, innovative tools. This is the crux of harm reduction.

Opioid Harm Reduction

Like most innovation, harm reduction strategies for opioid and/or injection drug users were born out of a need. In the 1980s, sterile syringes were certainly not an innovative technology. However, the idea that clean needle distribution could put a quick end to the transmission of the Hepatitis B virus in Amsterdam was, and the success of this intervention was noticed worldwide.

Although clean needle distribution was illegal at the time, activists who saw a need for this humanitarian intervention risked jail time and high fines to reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission among injection drug users in New Haven and Boston. Making such programs accessible was not an easy thing to do. Amid fears that dangerous drug use may increase and the idea that harm reduction programs would tacitly endorse illegal activity, there was resistance in governments and institutions adopting harm reduction strategies as a public health intervention.

However, following a noticeable decrease in the incidence of HIV in this population, syringe exchange access expanded across the United States and Europe. At first, clean syringe access programs (SAPs) operated with the consent of the communities they served but as the idea spread, these programs received financial and logistical support from several health departments. As of 2014, there are over 200 SAPs operating in 33 states and the District of Columbia.


Time has shown that these approaches are wildly successful in their primary objective and enormously cost effective. In 2008, Washington D.C. allocated $650,000 to increase harm reduction services including syringe access. As of 2011, it was estimated that this investment had averted 120 cases of HIV, saving $44 million.

Seven studies conducted by leading scientific and governmental agencies from 1991 through 2001 have also concluded that syringe access programs result in a decrease in HIV transmission without residual effects of increased injection drug use. In addition, SAPs are correlated with increased entry into treatment and detox programs and do not result in increases in crime in neighborhoods that support these programs.

Tobacco harm reduction

We know that some populations have a higher risk of smoking and of developing and dying from smoking-related diseases. With successful one-year quit rates hovering around 10 percent, harm reduction strategies can offer ways to transition smokers off of the most dangerous nicotine delivery device: the combustible cigarette.

In 2008, the World Health Organization developed the MPOWER policy package aimed to reduce the burden of cigarette smoking worldwide. In their vision statement, the authors explicitly state a goal where “no child or adult is exposed to tobacco smoke.”

Using an abstinence-only framework, MPOWER strategies are:

  1. To monitor tobacco use and obtain data on use in youth and adults;
  2. To protect society from second-hand smoke and decrease the availability of places that people are allowed to smoke by enacting and enforcing indoor smoking bans;
  3. To offer assistance in smoking cessation through strengthening health systems and legalization of nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs) and other pharmaceutical interventions where necessary;
  4. To warn the public of the dangers of smoking through public health campaigns, package warnings and counter advertising;
  5. To enact and enforce advertising bans; and
  6. To raise tobacco excise taxes.

These strategies have been shown to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use. People who quit smoking have a greater chance of remaining abstinent if they use NRTs. People exposed to pictorial health warnings are more likely to say they want to quit as a result. Countries with comprehensive advertising bans have a larger decrease in smoking rates compared to those without. Raising taxes has proven consistently to reduce consumption of tobacco products.

But, the effects of MPOWER programs are limited. Tobacco and smoking are often deeply ingrained in the culture and identity of communities. Studies repeatedly show that smoking is strongly tied to occupation and education, smokers’ self-identity and also the role that tobacco has in the economy and identity of the community.

As a practical matter, the abstinence approach is also limited by individual governmental laws. Article 13 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control recognizes that constitutional principles or laws may limit the capabilities of governments to implement these policy measures. In the United States, cigarettes are all but protected by the complexity of both the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement and the Family Smoking Protection and Tobacco Control Act of 2009. This guarantees availability to consumers – ironically increasing the need of more reduced-risk nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn devices or oral Snus, all of which offer an alternative to combustible use for people who either cannot or do not wish to quit smoking.

Several regulatory agencies, including the FDA in the United States and Public Health England in the United Kingdom, recognize that tobacco products exist on a continuum of risk, with combustible products (the most widely used) being the most dangerous and non-combustible products existing on the opposite end of the spectrum. In fact, Public Health England estimates that e-cigarettes are at least 95% safer than combustible products and many toxicological and epidemiological studies support this assertion.

Of course for tobacco harm reduction to work, people must have an incentive to move away from combustible cigarettes.There are two equally important strategies to convince people to do so. First, public health officials need to acknowledge that e-cigarettes are less risky. Continued mixed messages from government officials and tobacco use prevention organizations confuse people regarding the actual risks from e-cigarettes. Over half of adults in the United States believe that nicotine is the culprit of smoking-related illnesses – and who can blame them when our current tobacco control strategies are focused on lowering nicotine concentrations and ridding our world of e-cigarettes?

The second is price. People who cannot or do not wish to quit smoking will never switch to safer alternatives if they are more, or as, expensive as cigarettes. Keeping the total cost of reduced risk products low will encourage people who might not otherwise consider switching to do so. The best available estimates show that e-cigarette demand is much more vulnerable to price increases than combustible cigarettes – meaning that smokers are unlikely to respond to price increases meant to dissuade them from smoking, and are less likely to vape as a means to quit or as a safer alternative.

Of course strategies to prevent smoking or encourage cessation should be a priority for all populations that smoke, but harm-reduction approaches—in particular with respect to smoking—play a vital role in decreasing death and disease in people who engage in such risky behavior. For this reason, they should always be promoted alongside abstinence approaches.