Throughout the decade-plus history of vaping in the United States, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Dr. Nora Volkow has rarely, if ever, had a positive word to say about nicotine vaping products. Indeed, Volkow has frequently been trotted out by those looking to manufacture moral panics. Just as recently as April, she spoke at a nicotine prohibitionist conference and brought up the lung condition EVALI multiple times without ever clarifying that health agencies had linked EVALI to illicit contaminated THC vaping products.
Now, in the wake of a new piece in the American Journal of Public Health authored by fifteen past presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine & Tobacco, it appears her attitudes on tobacco harm reduction may be evolving.
Ethan Nadelmann, the former head of the Drug Policy Alliance, spoke to Volkow for an episode of his new podcast Psychoactive. In addition to making some news with her comments on the effects of marijuana legalization on youth usage, Volkow was also asked about tobacco harm reduction and what the role of NIDA is in correcting misperceptions about alternative nicotine products like vaping and heat-not-burn products.
“The reality is that, yes, vaping of nicotine can result in people that are naïve to become addicted very rapidly,” said Volkow. “On the other hand, as you say, electronic cigarettes offer an alternative delivery for nicotine [for] people who cannot stop smoking. And in the process, the European data has shown that actually there are benefits.”
“So one of the things that we have been very interested in doing is funding research that will document benefits of the use of the electronic cigarettes for nicotine cessation or for alternatives for treatments,” Volkow continued.
The conversation ended shortly thereafter, but Nadelmann was able to get in a reply highlighting the state of the evidence on the population-level health benefits of vaping products.
“I am impressed by the evidence coming from Ken Warner [and] many other people pointing out that from a public health perspective, the net benefit for smokers of switching so exceeds any potential risk to young people from vaping, and that the evidence of kids starting to vape and moving into cigarettes — unless they were already engaging with combustibles beforehand — is so low, that you have an overwhelming case for responsible public health policy,” argued Nadelmann.
It remains to be seen whether Volkow’s apparent moderation will stick. However, this openness represents a welcome change after years of her hyping hysteria and downplaying the clear public health benefits of nicotine alternatives.