Is it Safe to Say, ‘Safe?’


It would appear that there is no such thing as ‘safe.’ If we are to believe what we are told, particularly with reference to Harm Reduction, there is no such thing exists as safe. We are told this repeatedly. We are warned against using this ‘dangerous’ term – that it leads us into an area that can be exploited by our opponents – I beg to differ.


I suppose, at a superficial level, nothing actually is safe: the water we drink; the air we breathe; the paste we brush our teeth with; the cat we love, who purrs contented on the sofa – they all bring with them that tiny element of risk: They may bring, toxins, allergens, teeth and claws.


So there is no such thing as safe?


Yes there is.


But first, with regard to Harm Reduction and electronic cigarettes, why is the word, ‘safe,’ considered by so many advocates to be, ‘dangerous?’ And why, I will also ask, do the opponents of Harm Reduction also want so very much to prevent us from saying that Harm Reduction safe? Odd, is it not – vapers do not want to say the word because of the risks involved in its use, and opponents of Harm Reduction do not want the vapers to employ the word either?


In their flight from using, ‘safe,’ advocates of Harm Reduction have turned to, ‘safer than tobacco cigarettes,’ in their discussions on the topic. They are intimidated by the, ‘nothing is safe’ argument. They feel that bodies, such as Tobacco Control, will jump on them: heap criticism on them; use this weakness to exploit the vague, unsubstantiated fears that Tobacco Control are trying to nurture in the ‘uninformed.’ As soon as , ‘safe’ is used to describe the electronic cigarette, many advocates and activists throw their hands up in horror and scream warnings that this will be exploited to the detriment of Harm Reduction.


What a tight little corner the advocates of Harm Reduction have been backed into. Safer than cigarettes…  it is correct, Harm Reduction is safer than smoking, but look  at what Harm Reduction is being compared to – cigarettes, one of the most dangerous killers anywhere. Walking down a quiet country road blindfolded and deafened is safer than walking down a motorway during the rush hour, blindfolded and deafened, but, of course neither are safe. To use the, safer than, terminology, I am afraid, does very little to assure the listener as to the relative safety of Harm Reduction. To add, ‘by orders of magnitude,’ might have meaning to scientists, but has little effect on the majority. They think, ‘safer than cigarettes… but that means they might still be dangerous.’


And Tobacco Control now sit back rubbing their hands with glee.


But allow me to assert, Harm Reduction and electronic cigarettes are safe.


You see, ‘safe,’ is a relative term. It is very rarely used as an absolute. The meanings of words depend on their use, and this is why, over time, language changes: To demonstrate that ‘safe’ is relative, try different comparisons and look at the way the connotations change. As I have already stated, when compared to tobacco smoking, ‘safe’ can end up not feeling very safe at all. At the other end of the scale, let us look at, lollipops. Now lollipops have killed, in one year alone, in the US, a hundred children. Are lollypops safe? What about peanut butter? No! Surely not…Eh! What about a hot dog?[i] So armed with the knowledge that even these ‘safe’ items present risk, if you are told that electronic cigarettes are safer than lollipops, are safer than hot dogs, are safer than your morning cup of coffee, you get a very different perspective than you do when you are told that electronic cigarettes are safer than smoking.  Oh, and electronic cigarettes are actually safer than breathing in the morning air (in huge areas of the developed world), they are safer than consuming drinking water, safer than brushing our teeth, from using mouthwash, and they are safer than the deceits being forced upon advocates of Harm Reduction through the outrageous demands and accusations  spewing from Tobacco Control.


However, the preamble above is simply lightweight preparation for the main point.


The linguistic argument that ‘safe’ is relative and not absolute is interesting and correct enough, but ‘safe’ is also often legally defined and accepted as relative: ‘Safe’ comes in scales, relative to dangers. Interestingly, one of the main areas where we find definitions of ‘safe’ is in Health and Safety, and on environmental issues – we are on home ground.



‘Safe’ is used; in legal terms with regard to atmosphere, and what we breathe, and that there are legal safe limits for different environments. That cannot be if there is no such thing as ‘safe.’… It follows that if e cigarettes’ toxicity and emissions are below these levels, they too must be, in legal terms, ‘safe.’ (And if it is possible to set levels for medical permissions and use, it must therefore be possible to set those same levels whether it is for medicalization or not)


“In the UK, under the CONTROL OF SUBSTANCES HAZARDOUS TO HEALTH REGULATIONS 1999 (COSHH regulations) the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) sets occupational exposure limits (OELs) and publishes these in a document entitled EH40. These lists have legal status and similar legislation exists elsewhere; COSHH takes into account the European Commission Directive 80/ 1107/EEC. COSHH covers all toxic substance… The best way of controlling a risk is to prevent exposure but if this is not possible, a process may have to be enclosed or ventilation and extraction equipment used or special handling procedures employed. It should be possible for most people to work in a safe environment day after day and HSE publishes Guidance Note EH40 to help employers to control their processes adequately so that workers are not exposed to levels of toxic materials above the recognised safe levels.”[ii]


So ‘safe’ can be equated with controlled risk. A risk can be controlled to a ‘safe’ level.


Now, I would suggest reading the wealth of information available on the web regarding the toxicity of electronic cigarettes. A good starting place is, Peering through the mist.[iii]


So there it is, ‘safe.’ It is measurable. It is relative to other risks. It is something that we can and should use. Advocates have made an error by avoiding the use of the word, ‘safe’ in that they (and we) have been shoehorned into using a form of terminology that suits Tobacco Control just fine and dandy. Where we are talking about, ‘safe,’ our audience is thinking about danger.


We should be fighting this and repeating over and over again, harm reduction is the ‘SAFE’ alternative to cigarette smoking. And if Tobacco Control wants a fight – give them one.