The man in charge of tobacco regulation at the Food and Drug Administration says we “need a national debate on nicotine.” Good idea. But first we need to understand what nicotine is – and what it isn’t.

It isn’t the stuff that can cause serious illness and death from cancer, lung, and heart disease. Those culprits are the tar and toxic gases that are released from burning tobacco when you smoke.

Nicotine is a chemical that is dangerous not because it causes cancer but because it can addict you to cigarettes. As Michael Russell, the father of tobacco harm reduction theory and the developer of nicotine gum, put it in 1976: “People smoke for nicotine but they die from the tar.”

Mitchell Zeller, director of the Center of Tobacco Products, a division of the FDA, made his comments about nicotine in an interview with New York Times columnist Joe Nocera on the eve of his agency’s recommendations for regulating electronic cigarettes.

The nature of e-cigarettes is that, like Russell’s gum, they contain nicotine and thus satisfy the cravings of smokers, but vaping – as puffing on an e-cigarette is called – doesn’t burn tobacco and release those carcinogens. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t understand that nicotine itself isn’t the villain.

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