What is harm reduction?

10 Nov 2021 · 3 min read
Innovations to reduce the harm caused by certain behaviors are woven into our everyday lives. In some places, they are being applied to tobacco.
Woman-in-protective-bubble-landscape

Advances in science, technology, and regulation have enabled society to reduce the adverse effects of continuing with potentially harmful behavior. This is known as harm reduction.

Harm reduction is not equivalent to or better than stopping the original behavior, as it does not eliminate risk of harm, but it is better than continuing the original behavior.

Harm-reduction techniques can limit the impact our choices have across a range of issues, including on ourselves, others, society at large, or the environment. Take electric cars, for example. They take people from A to B just like their petrol-powered predecessors, but do significantly less harm to the environment in terms of the emissions generated on the same journey.

Similarly, innovation has led to the development of scientifically substantiated smoke-free products that have the potential to present less risk of harm than cigarettes for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke.

The more we integrate harm-reduction products into our everyday lives, the greater the benefit for individuals, society, and the environment.

Protecting your skin from the sun

The risks associated with exposure to the sun are well known. It can cause skin-related diseases, severe burns, and accelerated aging of the skin.

However, many people are prepared to take these risks to experience the sensation of the sun on their skin, and to socialize with friends, play sports, or increase their intake of vitamin D.

Whilst the safest option is to avoid exposure to direct sunlight altogether, there are many science-backed innovations that reduce the risks of sun exposure. For example, the World Health Organization suggests wearing UV-A and UV-B sunglasses and using broad-spectrum SPF 15+ sunscreen to protect oneself from the sun.

Driving climate change solutions

With motor vehicles, it became increasingly clear that emissions from combustion engines were damaging the environment, from poor air quality in our streets to the impact on the climate crisis.

However, driving is a part of modern life. The challenge was to keep people mobile but with significantly reduced harm to the environment. This has triggered a flurry of technological innovation, firstly with unleaded petrol, and then more recently the creation of electric vehicles that can offer comparable performance to combustion engine models, but with far lower emissions.

The more people switch to electric vehicles, the more positive environmental and health impact this harm-reduction measure will have in terms of air quality. Driving also exposes people to the dangers of accidents. However, thanks to technology and innovation, cars today have many harm-reduction measures in the event of a collision. For example, the WHO has said that “One of the most effective measures to protect occupants from injury in the event of a crash is the fitment and use of seat-belts and child restraints.”

From ABS and ESP to airbags and seatbelts, these innovations—and many more—are designed to reduce the number of accidents and, if they do happen, lessen serious injuries or fatalities.

The difference between tobacco, smoke and nicotine

0:52

learnings-tobacco-debate-davos-2019-v3

The importance of tobacco harm reduction

These examples of harm reduction play out in our daily lives.

As a society, we should apply a similar approach to tobacco. Research shows that in any given year, more than nine out of ten smokers will continue to smoke. In numerical terms, this means that leading public health agencies estimate that there will still be approximately one billion smokers in 2025—roughly the same number as today. This demonstrates that cessation strategies alone, while effective, are not sufficient.

Today, scientifically substantiated smoke-free alternatives exist that do not burn tobacco. As a result, they emit fewer and lower levels of harmful and potentially harmful constituents compared to the smoke produced when tobacco is burned. While not risk-free, they are a much better choice than cigarettes for adults who would otherwise continue to smoke.

Therefore, like other harm reduction measures, adults who smoke should be given access to and accurate information about these products.

Existing efforts to discourage people from smoking and encouraging those who do to quit must continue. But supplementing these measures with a tobacco harm reduction approach can accelerate a decline in smoking. If better alternatives to smoking are also made available, and enough smokers switch to them, we can more rapidly achieve a significant milestone in global health—a world without cigarettes.

Who would deny society a harm-reduction opportunity like that?