Not harmless, ergo harmful

class rhetorical ploy
category nirvana fallacy, zero-risk bias
motivation straw man
science aversion 🟩🟥🟥🟧🟧

No reputable scientist questions the starkly diminished risk from e-cigarettes. Since dependency retention and profile remain higher than in NRTs (a far cry from tobacco still), the inherent harm reduction is often disregarded:

Colloquially it's the misperception of nicotine being the harm carrier. Rhetorically the conservative "95% less harmful" estimate is often subjected to denialism. Mostly to validate minutae exaggarations, and insinuate heightened risk potentials, or to straw man that e-cigs were declared harm-free.

"Still smoking"

It's sometimes an assumption based on scientific distrust or observational concerns. If the vapour is equivocated for smoking, then any quantification becomes emotionally irrelevant. (Occasionally just disdain for ex-/smokers.)

"Ergo harmful"

More frequently a negational conclusion is drawn. In particular "If it's not wholly harm-free, it must be dangerous" appears in various forms.

  • It's usually employed as support rhetoric for auxiliary concerns.
  • Oftentimes it's based on the straw assumption that vaping is portrayed/perceived as completely harm-free.
    • There are certainly vendors (China) that do, or vaping advocates who are a wee bit overeuphemistic.
    • Even though the harm perception among current smokers has already been perverted.
    • Conversely, it's existing regulations that prevent sensible product documentation and trustworthy risk communication.
  • Hopeful aspirations to uncover more harm aspects / or general assumptions of risk novelty/newsworthiness of minutae.
  • Cognizing NVPs as substitute for nonsmoking, and/or disregarding the intended purpose as smoking replacement or fallback for quitting inability.
  • It's an intentional contradiction on the idea of risk minimization.
  • Likely hinges on misattributions of nicotine-addiction and presumed carcinogenicity.
  • TV might also lead to fetishizing harms/deaths (Gitali, Chapman, Brian..)

Lofty comparisons

In part the misconceptions stem from comparing e-cigs to air. It's usually a rhetorical tactic, to discard the actual purpose: harm reduction.

Presumptionary principle

"Precautionary principle" is oft used as cynicism to disregard the existing body of evidence on reduced harm for e-cig switchers - and keep subjecting smokers to the known (disproportionally higher) harms. Inordinate risk projections are thus actually violating the PP.

Quit or wither

In any case it's based on the notion that harm/risk reduction is insufficient, and insisting solely on risk elimination was realistic. Which is usally described as the puritanical / abstinence-only orthodoxy (zero-risk distortion). This is often presumed to be an indicator for pharma-ties, albeit the hint to only use medical cessation products (NRTs, psychopharmaca) is better explained by regulatory/liability worries.

See also popcorn-news for some of the dated refrains.

<q>growing evidence on the harmful effects</q> / <q>… marketed as being safe</q> ERS
<q>no level of exposure was safe</q> ACTC


  1. RCP: "unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm"
  2. PHE: Vaping better than nicotine replacement therapy for stopping smoking, evidence suggests
  3. Public Health England insists e-cigarettes are 95% safer than smoking, also Evidence update 2021
  4. Nicotine products relative risk assessment: a systematic review and meta-analysis - scores individual toxicological / cancer risk at 0.24 relative to 100.0 for cigarettes; meta study of 53 data sources
  5. How noncigarette tobacco products affect respiratory symptoms is not clear; some studies implicate e-cigarettes.
  6. Beliefs and characteristics associated with believing nicotine causes cancer: a descriptive analysis to inform corrective message content and priority audiences
  7. Nicotine misperceptions:
  8. EC lifetime cancer probality 0.4%
  9. Pasteur: Comparison of the chemical composition of aerosols from heated tobacco products, electronic cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes and their toxic impacts on the human bronchial epithelial BEAS-2B cells
  10. Debunking the claim that abstinence is usually healthier for smokers than switching to a low-risk alternative, and other observations about anti-tobacco-harm-reduction arguments
  11. Nicotine vaping in England: 2022 evidence update (1400 pages)
    Based on the reviewed evidence, we believe that the “at least 95% less harmful” estimate remains broadly accurate, at least over short term and medium term periods.
  12. Challenges in communicating the benefits of switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes: Responses from eight adult focus groups with varying smoking experience
  13. Effects of as-if risk framing of hazards on risk perception and its rebuttal
  14. “Not safe” is not enough: smokers have a right to know more than there is no safe tobacco product