Tobacco control through the lens of moral psychology

November 30, 2017 by David J. Hill, University at Buffalo

The tobacco control debate can get testy at times as advocates on both sides of the issue—those who favor abstinence-only approaches to cigarettes and other tobacco products and those who support harm reduction—wage spirited campaigns in support of their respective positions.

Harm reduction seeks to minimize the use of the most harmful tobacco products (cigarettes) and, for those who will not quit using any tobacco or nicotine product, maximize the use of much less harmful products such as e-cigarettes or .

In a new paper, a University at Buffalo expert says both positions in this important policy debate can be better understood through the lens of moral psychology.

"After decades of work in this area, I thought the perspective of moral psychology helped inform why these debates are often so vitriolic and yet so often based on limited science," says Lynn T. Kozlowski, professor of community health and health behavior in UB's School of Public Health and Health Professions. Kozlowski's paper will be published in the December issue of the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law.

Supporters of an abstinence-only approach want primarily to stop the use of any tobacco/nicotine product. The harm reduction view is that as long as cigarettes are a legal product under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, safer alternatives to the much more deadly combustible cigarette should be available, and their use encouraged. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb recently endorsed this view.

In his new paper, Kozlowski, PhD, draws attention to what he says are "biases that lead some to focus more on the protection of 'good' kids from harm versus the protection of 'bad' kids from greater harm."

Kozlowski explains: "'Good' kids are those who are not using any tobacco/nicotine products and are at low risk of ever doing so. 'Bad' kids are already involved with using tobacco/nicotine products and engaging in other risky activities such as drinking alcohol and using other drugs. Neither position should be viewed as bizarre or immoral. Each is a position that is supported by strong moral intuitions. It is a call to try to better understand where the 'opposition' is coming from, so to speak."

The increased use of electronic cigarettes has further intensified the tobacco control debate, Kozlowski says, noting that some public health experts have zero tolerance for promoting the use of less harmful products like e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, while others argue that these products should be encouraged as alternatives even for youth who smoke because they are safer alternatives to deadly cigarettes.

When it comes to tobacco and nicotine use among young people, there doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing approach, Kozlowski says. Sex education offers a good example. "It has been found that comprehensive sex education programs can encompass both an abstinence-only focus and a safer sex approach, with an ability to help those who can benefit from one or the other approach," he says.

"Trying to maximize abstinence from tobacco products or maximize the use of less harmful tobacco products have become opposing options in part due to the emotional reactions that influence views of these approaches," Kozlowski adds. "I think there is room for trying to do both and benefit public , if there is an appreciation of the diverse group of youth who can benefit from a variety of tobacco control efforts."

The arguments on both sides are rooted in a quick emotional reaction that's followed by a slower thought process that plays out in which a person makes the case either for abstinence from products or a harm reduction approach.

"It is as if scientists were thinking of their own teenager and, if the teenager had not been engaging in any risky behavior, the priority would be to prevent that from ever happening," Kozlowski says. "But if the son or daughter had already started smoking, the parent might be hoping at least to be able to move the teenager to using a much less risky product."

The desire to protect a 'pure,' uncontaminated child from the contamination is opposed by the desire to have the already contaminated child protected as much as possible from doing any more harm to themselves, Kozlowski said In both cases, though, "Advocates for either position may have already decided on their preferred policy on the basis of their initial, rapid moral psychological response to what is the more important course of action."

Explore further: Why the marijuana and tobacco policy camps are on very different paths

More information: Lynn T. Kozlowski. Minors, Moral Psychology, and the Harm Reduction Debate: The Case of Tobacco and Nicotine, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law (2017). DOI: 10.1215/03616878-4193642

Related Stories

Why the marijuana and tobacco policy camps are on very different paths

June 8, 2017
The regulatory approaches to marijuana and tobacco in the United States are on decidedly different paths and, according to researchers from the U.S. and Australia, neither side appears interested in learning from the other.

FDA will target e-cigs in health campaign for youth

August 8, 2017
(HealthDay)—The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will now include electronic cigarettes in a public health education campaign to discourage American youth from using tobacco and nicotine products.

About 20 percent of U.S. adults currently use tobacco products

November 13, 2017
(HealthDay)—About one in five U.S. adults currently uses any tobacco product, according to a study published online Nov. 9 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

More than one in five U.S. working adults uses tobacco

October 30, 2017
(HealthDay)—Overall, 22.1 percent of working U.S. adults currently use any form of tobacco, according to a study published online Oct. 26 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

E-cigarettes are more likely to be used by alcohol drinkers and former cigarette smokers

November 14, 2017
Electronic cigarettes are more frequently used by people who recently quit smoking and alcohol drinkers, according to preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2017, a premier ...

E-cigarettes a gateway to smoking? Not likely, according to new published research

March 13, 2017
Are e-cigarettes a gateway product that lead more people, especially teens, to smoke regular cigarettes? No, according to public health researchers from the University at Buffalo and the University of Michigan writing in ...

Recommended for you

Moderate drinking associated with lower risk of heart disease but consistency matters

August 21, 2018
Unstable drinking patterns over time may be associated with a higher risk of heart disease, whereas consistent moderate drinking within recommended health guidelines may have a cardioprotective effect, according to a study ...

Seven percent of children in orthodontic care at 'high risk' for sleep disorders, according to new research

August 21, 2018
A child who is restless, hyperactive and can't concentrate could have a problem rooted in a source parents might not suspect: a sleep disorder.

If you've got MS, exercise means much more than moving

August 21, 2018
For people with multiple sclerosis, the meaning of exercise stretches way beyond health and keeping fit, shows new research revealing what life's really like with the condition.

Sitting for long hours found to reduce blood flow to the brain

August 20, 2018
A team of researchers with Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K. has found evidence of reduced blood flow to the brain in people who sit for long periods of time. In their paper published in the Journal of Applied ...

Your office may be affecting your health

August 20, 2018
Workers in open office seating had less daytime stress and greater daytime activity levels compared to workers in private offices and cubicles, according to new research led by the University of Arizona.

Healthy diet linked to healthy cellular aging in women

August 20, 2018
Eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in added sugar, sodium and processed meats could help promote healthy cellular aging in women, according to a new study published in the American Journal ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.