Harm reduction and the medicalisation of tobacco use

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In tobacco control the focus has, for some time, been on abstinence from all types of tobacco use as the only solution to the problem of smoking, and harm reduction approaches are controversial. The most recent English tobacco strategy has incorporated harm reduction approaches in the form of new ‘routes’ to quitting smoking that encourage those who cannot quit to use safer sources of nicotine. This move away from a focus on abstinence can be seen as the result of gradual shifts over the past 50 years in the way that that the problem of smoking is understood and the solutions that are offered. These shifts have involved increasingly seeing tobacco use as a medical problem. This article uses conceptual tools from science and technology studies to examine developments over the last decade in England, primarily the increasing importance of harm reduction approaches. Drawing on 20 semi-structured qualitative interviews with key stakeholders and documentary analysis, I suggest that the shape harm reduction has taken in English tobacco control policy has been another shift towards the medicalisation of tobacco use, but that this process has occurred in ways that provide a contrast to commonly outlined ‘drivers’ of medicalisation.

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