Addiction News: E-Cigarettes vs. Nicotine Patches; OxyContin and Recovery

Here are two recent noteworthy items in addiction news.

In Smoking Cessation, E-Cigarettes Trade One Form of Nicotine Addiction for Another

A study by British researchers published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine found that e-cigarettes were nearly twice as effective as traditional nicotine-replacement methods at helping smokers to quit. After one year, 18 percent of e-cigarette users were still not smoking, compared with about 10 percent of those who used nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, and inhalers. Without any kind of aid, the success rate for smoking cessation is around 3 percent.


The downside of using e-cigarettes to quit is that people often ended up addicted to them. Vaping is less harmful than lighting up a conventional cigarette, which contains numerous toxins including tar, formaldehyde, arsenic, and carbon monoxide. In terms of harm reduction, e-cigarettes are an improvement over regular cigarettes. But nicotine itself is a highly addictive chemical that can be lethal in concentrated doses; for centuries, it has been used as an insecticide. Furthermore, vaping products often contain flavoring agents to make them taste of mint or cinnamon or different kinds of fruit, and no long-term studies have been done on their safety.

When e-cigarettes were first introduced in the US a decade or so ago, I wondered if they would re-normalize the act of smoking—or inhaling a nicotine-laden vapor—in a culture where it had become increasingly disparaged. E-cigarettes are popular among young people and have been specifically marketed to them by manufacturers such as Juul, which until an FDA crackdown last fall, sold vaping pods in flavors of mango, cucumber, fruit, and creme at gas stations and convenience stores. Even if e-cigarettes may be useful in weaning some adults off tobacco, they’re not being used that way by young people. Instead, they’re introducing a new generation to nicotine addiction through an act that mimics conventional smoking, popularizing anew a behavior that public health advocates worked for decades to stigmatize.

OxyContin Maker Sought to Enter Addiction Recovery Business

In Massachusetts, attorney general Maura Healey has filed a lawsuit accusing Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, of creating and perpetuating the opioid crisis. The suit claims that the company, and the Sackler family which controls it, aggressively marketed the medication while knowing that it was addictive, promoted higher doses to increase profits, and hired the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to boost its image in the fact of negative publicity. The allegations are disturbing and have been covered previously; Patrick Radden Keefe’s article in the New Yorker, in particular, is a comprehensive look at the Sackler family and how it made OxyContin into a blockbuster drug.


To me, the most intriguing part of the lawsuit is the allegation that Purdue Pharma at one point considered getting into the addiction recovery business. In an initiative code-named Project Tango, company executives and at least one member of the Sackler family proposed acquiring the rights to sell Narcan, a medication used to reverse overdoses, and Suboxone, which is used to treat opioid addiction. The project was later abandoned. But it highlights the ways in which actual people shaped the making and the contours of the opioid epidemic. Employees at the company and members of the Sackler family were aware of the growing crisis, yet they acted cynically and shirked any moral responsibility in perpetuating it, even aiming to profit off it by expanding their business to treat those who were suffering from it.

We often think of addiction in terms of individual behavior: a man who starts taking oxycodone to treat pain after a car accident and becomes dependent on it; a young woman who starts smoking to relieve stress and finds herself unable to quit. But those who work for pharmaceutical companies, cigarette manufacturers, and advertising agencies have played and continue to play an active role in creating and promoting desire for their products. They help to determine access to them, and, in the case of tobacco companies, cover up research about their harms. Addiction is a disease, but it doesn’t originate solely in brain chemistry or physiology. It exists within a broader social environment that affects one’s exposure to addictive substances, as well as one’s experiences of addiction and recovery. That’s why I find the lawsuit against Purdue Pharma so fascinating. It reveals the usually invisible workings of those individuals behind the scenes whose decisions affect people’s physical and emotional health in ways that are neither natural nor inevitable.

Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder: Harmless Household Product or Lethal Carcinogen?

On Monday night, a jury in St. Louis awarded $72 million to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and other talcum-based products for years. The verdict came after a three-week trial in which lawyers for the plaintiff, an Alabama woman named Jacqueline Fox, argued that Johnson & Johnson had known of the dangers of talcum powder since the 1980s and concealed the risks. The corporation’s lawyers countered by saying the safety of talcum powder was supported by decades of scientific evidence and there was no direct proof of causation between its products and Fox’s cancer.

Fox used Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder and another talc-based product called Shower to Shower for 35 years. “It just became second nature, like brushing your teeth,” her son said. “It’s a household name.” The company has come under fire in recent years from consumer safety groups for the use of questionable ingredients in its products, including formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both of which are considered likely carcinogens. Fox’s case was the first to reach a monetary award among some 1,200 lawsuits pending nationally against the company.

The case bears a notable resemblance to the lawsuits against the tobacco companies, with attorneys for both the plaintiff and the defendant taking a page from the playbook of their respective side. Fox’s lawyers claimed that Johnson & Johnson’s own medical consultants warned in internal documents of the risk of ovarian cancer from hygienic talc use, just as tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking caused lung cancer but sought to suppress the evidence. And the pharmaceutical giant responded as the tobacco industry did in the numerous lawsuits it faced in the 1980s and 1990s: by creating doubt about the mechanism of cancer causation and upholding the safety of its products.

I find this case uniquely disturbing because the image of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder as a household product that evokes a sense of comfort and protection is so at odds with the jury’s finding that it caused or contributed to a case of fatal ovarian cancer. The company appears to be right in claiming that the scientific evidence is inconclusive: some studies have shown a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer among women who use products containing talcum powder, while others have found no link. It’s important to note that until the 1970s talcum-based products contained asbestos, so people who used them before that time were exposed to a known carcinogen. Still, the research is unsettled enough that the American Cancer Society advises people who are concerned about talcum powder to avoid using it “[u]ntil more information is available.”

Without examining the trial transcripts or interviewing the jurors, it’s impossible to know for sure what factors influenced the verdict. I imagine the tobacco settlements have irrevocably changed the environment surrounding these types of lawsuits—that there’s a sizable segment of the American public which is understandably suspicious of large corporations trying to conceal research about the health risks of their products. I suspect there’s also an element of causation and blame at work here, about wanting to assign responsibility for a disease that remains, for the most part, perplexing and impenetrable. We all make choices that affect our health on a daily basis, from what kind of shampoo to use to what to eat for lunch, and we want assurance that the repercussions of the decisions we make with good intentions will be in our best interest. But as the unprecedented $72 million verdict shows, we have an immense uneasiness about the dangers lurking behind the most benign-seeming household products. And we fear that those products, rather than benefiting us, will instead do us harm.

Shooting the Moon on Cancer

During his final State of the Union address on January 12th, President Obama announced a “moonshot” to cure cancer and appointed Vice President Biden to lead it. The edict is reminiscent of Nixon’s 1971 War on Cancer, which was envisioned as an all-out effort to eradicate the disease by marshaling the kinds of resources and scientific knowledge that two years earlier had sent a man to the moon. By most measures we’re much better off now than we were four decades ago: cancer treatments have improved drastically, people are living longer after diagnosis, and mortality rates have been falling since their peak in the early 1990s. But as anyone who has been touched by cancer can attest—and in the United States, that’s nearly all of us—the war is far from over.

Biden, whose son died of brain cancer last year, outlined a plan that’s essentially twofold: to increase public and private resources in the fight against cancer, and to promote cooperation among the various individuals, organizations and institutions working in cancer research. The initiative will likely lead to increased funding for the National Institutes of Health, a prospect that has many scientists giddy with anticipation. But the complexities of cancer, which are now much clearer than in 1971, underscore the multiple challenges confronting us. On NPR, one researcher described how the same form of cancer can act differently in different people because of the immense number of genetic distinctions between us. And in the New York Times, Gina Kolata and Gardiner Harris pointed out that the moonshot reflects an outmoded view of cancer as one disease rather than hundreds, and the idea of discovering a single cure is therefore “misleading and outdated.”

Nixon’s initiative signaled an optimism in the certainty of scientific progress to combat a disease that many regarded with dread. In polls, articles, and letters, Americans at the time debated whether they’d want to be told of a cancer diagnosis and worried about being in close contact with cancer patients. The disease’s many unknowns generated fears of contracting it, desperation about the pain and debilitation associated with it, and plenty of unorthodox cures (this was, after all, the era of laetrile and Krebiozen).

Much has changed in the intervening decades, and if you’re diagnosed with a form of cancer today, you’d undoubtedly have a better prognosis than in 1971. But one aspect of cancer in American culture has not changed, and that’s the mystique surrounding the disease. Cancer is not the biggest cause of death in the US—heart disease takes top honors—but it remains the most feared. It occupies an outsize place in the landscape of health and wellness, suffering and death. As such, it demands a bold approach. Winning the “war on cancer” would necessitate breaking down the disease into types and subtypes: not cancer, but cancers; not cancer but ductal carcinoma in situ and acute myeloid leukemia and retinoblastoma. But this would dilute its power as a singular cultural force, an adversary that (the thinking goes) with a massive coordinated input of resources could be vanquished once and for all.

Photo credit: Cecil Fox, National Cancer Institute

Photo credit: Cecil Fox, National Cancer Institute

Biden’s moonshot doesn’t just reproduce an outmoded idea of cancer; it is dependent upon it. It also promotes research and therapies in search of a cure at the expense of prevention, which he fails to mention a single time. Innovative new treatments that showcase scientific advancement are flashy and exciting, unlike lifestyle recommendations around nutrition or exercise, or widespread public health efforts to reduce the presence of environmental carcinogens. There’s also the issue of how to measure progress with a goal as elusive as curing cancer. Is it in decreased incidence or mortality rates? In lowering the number of new diagnoses to zero? Perhaps the moonshot should instead focus on reducing human suffering associated with cancers by emphasizing prevention and addressing inequalities that affect health and health outcomes. It’s an objective that’s unquestionably less spectacular than curing cancer, but certainly more achievable.



James T. Patterson, The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture. Harvard University Press, 1987.