Harm reduction is a policy approach to a harmful activity which seeks to reduce the harm caused by the activity rather than to prevent the activity itself. As applied to smoking and tobacco use, harm reduction is most commonly used to refer to the objective of modifying conventional tobacco products and/or developing novel tobacco products that will reduce the risk of tobacco-related diseases.
Harm reduction policies are based on the view acknowledged by virtually all public health organizations that tobacco use will continue well into the future. As the UN stated in 2004, even assuming current rates of decline in consumption, “the number of tobacco users would still be expected to increase to 1.46 billion by 2025.”
The recognition that people will continue to smoke has led many public health authorities to the conclusion that developing tobacco products that have a reduced risk of causing disease is a crucial element of tobacco policy. This is contrasted with those groups who take an abstinence-based approach that focuses solely on preventing people from beginning to use tobacco products and encouraging people to quit using tobacco products.
Following a harm reduction policy does not preclude governments from pursuing the objectives of prevention of initiation and encouraging cessation. On the contrary, most proponents of harm reduction are vigorous supporters of those important goals. As we see it, tobacco harm reduction should complement prevention and cessation efforts -- not compete with them.
Our support of harm reduction follows two paths: one is through our research and development of products with the potential to reduce the risk of tobacco related diseases. The other path is through our support of regulation based on the principle of harm reduction.
 Report of the Secretary-General to the ECOSOC, UN Ad Hoc Inter-Agency Task Force on Tobacco Control, 2004