Obsolete tobacco control themes can be hazardous to public health: The need for updating views on absolute product risks and harm reduction

Lynn T. Kozlowski, David B. Abrams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Leading themes have guided tobacco control efforts, and these themes have changed over the decades. When questions arose about health risks of tobacco, they focused on two key themes: 1) how bad is the problem (i.e., absolute risk) and 2) what can be done to reduce the risk without cessation (i.e., prospects for harm reduction). Using the United States since 1964 as an example, we outline the leading themes that have arisen in response to these two questions. Initially, there was the recognition that "cigarettes are hazardous to health" and an acceptance of safer alternative tobacco products (cigars, pipes, light/lower-tar cigarettes). In the 1980s there was the creation of the seminal theme that "Cigarettes are lethal when used as intended and kill more people than heroin, cocaine, alcohol, AIDS, fires, homicide, suicide, and automobile crashes combined." By around 2000, support for a less-dangerous light/lower tar cigarette was gone, and harm reduction claims were avoided for products like cigars and even for smokeless tobacco which were summarized as "unsafe" or "not a safe alternative to cigarettes." Discussion: The Surgeon General in 2014 concluded that by far the greatest danger to public health was from cigarettes and other combusted products. At the same time the evidence base for smokeless tobacco and alternative nicotine delivery systems (ANDS) had grown. Product innovation and tobacco/nicotine bio-behavioral, epidemiological and public health sciences demonstrate that low nitrosamine smokeless tobacco (e.g., Swedish snus), and ANDS have substantially lower harms than cigarettes. Going forward, it is important to sharpen themes and key messages of tobacco control, while continuing to emphasize the extreme lethality of the inhaled smoke from cigarettes or from use of any combusting tobacco product. Summary: Implications of updating the leading themes for regulation, policymaking and advocacy in tobacco control are proposed as an important next step. A new reframing can align action plans to more powerfully and rapidly achieve population-level benefit and minimize harm to eliminate in our lifetime the use of the most deadly combustible tobacco products and thus prevent the premature deaths of 1 billion people projected to occur worldwide by 2100.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number432
JournalBMC public health
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 24 2016


  • Electronic cigarettes
  • Harm reduction
  • Nicotine
  • Risk communication
  • Smokeless tobacco
  • Smoking
  • Snus
  • Tobacco policy
  • Vaping
  • Warning labels

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


Dive into the research topics of 'Obsolete tobacco control themes can be hazardous to public health: The need for updating views on absolute product risks and harm reduction'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this