The Word “Carcinogen” Could Be Redefined to Include Nicotine

Pascal Culverhouse Talks Nicotine and Carcinogen – You’d think that whether a substance (Nicotine in this case) causes cancer or not is decided by science, not semantics. But at the history of several key terms shows us that tobacco control is not above moving the goalposts. In fact, public health campaigners have been redefining words to meet their needs since 1988. But are they doing it in the interest of public health?

Nicotine was declared addictive in 1988

This was more than two decades after the Surgeon General’s landmark report on smoking in 1964. Before then, addiction had a different meaning. Psychologists and pharmacologists considered smoking to be a ‘social habit’. The stronger term ‘addiction’ applied to substances like heroin and alcohol, which were intoxicating and had dramatic withdrawal effects.

Element Vape

To get nicotine into the ‘addictive’ club, they had to tweak the definition. ‘Addictive’ came to include anything which you can build a tolerance to, is self-reinforcing and causes minor withdrawal symptoms. By opening the door a fraction, they not only squeezed nicotine into this new definition but also caffeine, sugar, sex and salt too.

Tobacco products (without tobacco)

More recently, the FDA classified e-cigarettes as “tobacco products”. They justify this by saying that e-cigarettes contain nicotine, a substance which is derived from tobacco.

It’s not hard to see how consumers could be confused by “tobacco products” which don’t actually contain tobacco. This is an intentional move by the FDA, allowing e-cigarettes to be considered as a legitimate target in their war on smoking. Stock FDA phrases like “no tobacco product has been shown to be safe” further muddy the waters. The public will begin to associate cigarettes with e-cigarettes without pausing to consider the relative risks of each.

Even worse, the FDA has also decided that the public is not allowed to know if a product contains tobacco or not. If you sell e-cigarettes, it is illegal to explain that your products do not contain tobacco, tar or carbon monoxide. Is the FDA suggesting that consumers can’t be trusted with accurate information about the products they are buying?

But the “tobacco product” definition isn’t just misleading, it’s also inconsistent. Nicotine gums, patches, and sprays also contain nicotine derived from tobacco, in exactly the same way that e-cigarettes do. Why aren’t these considered tobacco products too? How can nicotine be harmless when it’s in a spray, but harmful when it’s in a vaporizer? Why might a nicotine-free e-liquid be a gateway to smoking, but not a piece of nicotine gum? These inconsistencies make the FDA look ridiculous at best, deeply corrupt at worst.

But there’s more. It’s not just the e-liquids and cartomizers that are considered “tobacco products” by the FDA. It’s also any component or accessory to an e-cigarette (including tanks, batteries, and mouthpieces). A vaporizer used exclusively for nicotine-free e-liquids or medical marijuana is a “tobacco product” in the eyes of the FDA, even though there is no relationship with the tobacco plant remaining.

Redefining Cancer

Why stop there? We’ve elected to go down the slippery slope and now we’re in free fall. The next word that public health campaigners want redefined is “carcinogenic“. Carcinogenic means “having the potential to cause cancer“. The problem with this definition, from a public health perspective, is that is nicotine is not a carcinogen.


The solution? They intend to redefine the word carcinogen in such a way that nicotine can be included. If you think that the current regulation of e-cigarettes is harsh, just imagine what will happen if they can call nicotine a carcinogen. The International Agency for Cancer Research plans to review nicotine at some point before 2019. They are considering classifying nicotine as a carcinogen if they can find that it promotes the growth of existing tumors.

Proposition 64 – Redefining “carcinogens

Redefining “carcinogens” in this way is clearly dangerous. Abuse a word enough times and it starts to lose its meaning. Just look at Proposition 65 in California. The law states that anything known to be a cancer risk must carry a warning label. This seems sensible until you realize that the bar for “cancer risk” was set far too low. Now almost everything comes with a warning label, including car parks, fishing rods, Christmas lights and painted walls.

This is dangerous because it puts risky carcinogens, such as alcohol and cigarettes, in the same bucket as low-risk carcinogens, like warm drinks and red meat. It has created an unhelpful idea that has taken hold in the public mindset: everything causes cancer. We’ve already reached a place where carcinogens have become so common that they are almost meaningless. By expanding the definition again, the IACR will doubtless make the situation even worse.

Somewhere along the way we’ve lost all sight of what public health is supposed to be for. The role of public health bodies is not to wage war on nicotine or redefine words to expand their influence. The role of public health is a simple one: to protect the health of the public. To reduce harm. It’s time that public health officials started counting their victories not by laws made or words defined by the only metric that matters — lives saved.

Pascal Culverhouse

Author Bio: Pascal Culverhouse founded the Electric Tobacconist in 2013. Less than 18 months later the business was the UK’s number one online retailer of e-cigarettes. He still finds time to vape everyday and keeps up with the latest e-cig trends.