Harm reduction is a policy of encouraging and supporting an individual
to take incremental actions to reduce the potential harm of high-risk behaviors
which a person can’t or won’t stop.
The American Heart Association (AHA) last week reiterated its concern about the negative health effects of e-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes that deliver vaporized nicotine only), but cautiously noted that it considered e-cigarettes as an acceptable “last resort” for those who can’t stop smoking after using nicotine patches and other medications . This is the most recent example of a “harm reduction” strategy.
Aruni Bhatnagar, Professor of Medicine at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and the lead author of the AHA’s statement, wrote: “If someone refuses to quit, we’re not opposed to them switching from conventional to e-cigarettes…Don’t use them indefinitely. Set a quit date for quitting conventional, e-cigarettes and everything else.”
There is scant evidence that using e-cigarettes help people to stop smoking, but e-cigarettes do not deliver tars and other carcinogenic chemicals to the lungs. Hence, smoking an e-cigarette can reduce harm. The American Cancer Society jury is still out.
The “harm reduction” strategy, identified in the 1980‘s, began to really be promoted as an alternative to abstinence around 2000. It was initially focussed on psychoactive drug abuse, but was later expanded to include alcohol and all substance abuse. Its strategies are also incorporated into adolescent sex education, HIV prevention, and homeless health programs. Tactics include school-based distribution of condoms, community needle exchange programs, methadone maintenance, housing without sobriety for the homeless, and, in some countries, heroin dispensing clinics and clean injection facilities.
The DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), or “just say no”, program was that was based on a zero tolerance principle, and it was not effective in reducing drug abuse.
Critics of the harm reduction strategy claim that such an approach can “normalize” the risky behavior that society wants to change. They think harm reduction policy can raise an expectation that such risky behavior is acceptable and even “expected”, particularly for adolescents.
Proponents of harm reduction quote extensive literature that shows that it is “inexpensive, evidence-based, and effective” . The designated driver awareness policy is an excellent example of a successful harm reduction tactic. It is one factor in the reduction of teen age car accidents and deaths. A few years ago the homeless health center with which I am associated stopped requiring alcohol abstinence, sobriety, on the part of a client prior to being placed in transitional housing. Its rates for successful stable housing, subsequent employment, and duration of sobriety increased among those clients.
Harm reduction is opposed to abstinence and therefore conflicts with traditional substance abuse treatment.
Harm reduction encourages drug use.
Harm reduction permits harmful behavior and maintains an “anything goes” attitude.
Harm reduction is not at odds with abstinence; instead, it includes it as one possible goal across a continuum of possibilities.
Harm reduction is neither for nor against drug use. It does not seek to stop drug use, unless individuals make that their goal.
Harm reduction focuses on supporting people’s efforts to reduce the harms created by drug use or other risky behaviors.
Harm reduction neither condones nor condemns any behavior. Instead, it evaluates the consequences of behaviors and tries to reduce the harms that those behaviors pose for individuals, families and communities.
Despite all the scientific evidence, it is sometimes hard to fully embrace the concept of “harm reduction” emotionally. I sometimes feel that small moral tug of “whatever happened to right and wrong”. After all, the Ten Commandments say “Thou shall not commit adultery”; not “Try very hard not to commit adultery and, at least, don’t cause an unwanted pregnancy”. But, many studies show that harm reduction strategies can benefit the individual, the family, and the community. We will be hearing a lot more about it, so we should get used to it.