PuffPacket: A Tobacco Harm Reduction Gadget, Despite Inventors’ Intent


    PuffPacket is a new device that gives vapers a wealth of information. The electronic gadget, which attaches to a variety of vaping products, can monitor when and where a person vapes, how deeply they inhale and how much nicotine is consumed. The data can then be transmitted to a smartphone, which records location, time and activitysuch as walking, standing or driving. Think of PuffPacket as a Fitbit for vapers.

    “There’s been a jump in the prevalence of e-cigarette use, especially in recent years, but we don’t really understand how people are using it…The lack of continuous and objective understanding of vaping behaviors led us to develop PuffPacket,” said Alexander T. Adams, a doctoral student and researcher in Information Science at Cornell University.

    The ability to track nicotine usage is probably the most important feature of PuffPacket. With vapingwhether you’re using an open or closed systemit’s tricky to know, at least initially, the exact amount of nicotine needed for satisfaction in order to avoid withdrawal and risk returning to smoking.

    In the US, e-liquids come in various strengths, from 4 mg to 24 mg. But how to know which strength is right? People who smoke know when they’ve consumed sufficient nicotine by visual cues, like if the cigarette has burned to the filter or how many are left in the pack. Smokers often refer to their level of smoking by how many packs they smoke per day. Those who can’t afford packs can count how many “loosies” they get through. Using such barometers, a person who smokes can titrate their nicotine consumption up or down until the sweet spot is found, and also to know when to stop.

    By helping vapers to do this too, PuffPacket is a clever and user-friendly tobacco harm reduction tool. But strangely that isn’t the way the team at Cornell that created it views the device.

    Why invent a device for people who vape if you are opposed to vaping?

    In a paper published this month by Adams and his colleagues, their bias against vaping is clear. They cite research by the disgraced Stanton Glantz, who recently had a study on vaping retracted that concluded e-cigarettes don’t help people quit smoking. Not true. There are ample studies that demonstrate that vaping daily is more effective than other nicotine replacement products and aids smoking cessation. Adams and Glantz believe in complete abstinence from nicotine. But the reality is that many people who vape will maintain their use of nicotine for its positive effects. Nicotine increases concentration, focus and energy, much like caffeine. Why give up those benefits?

    Unfortunately, the PuffPacket inventors believe many of the lies and myths about nicotine and vaping products, including that nicotine harms teen brains. Their paper even suggests that the misnamed e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) was caused by vaping nicotine. It was not.

    Why invent a device for people who vape if you are opposed to vaping?

    The reason, apparently, is to help people stop vaping. Because, according to Adams, there is a vaping epidemic. “The demand is great for understanding the e-cigarette epidemic,” he said. “We wanted to give the community of public health researchers a tool to help them do so.”

    To be fair to the Cornell Researchers, their scope was limited when the most important tool for public health had already been invented: the e-cigarette! There is no vaping epidemic, but there is an epidemic of smoking cigarettes that leads to almost 500,000 deaths every year in the US. Vaping is helping millions of people to stop smoking and avoid a premature, smoking-related death.

    If vapers want to use PuffPacket to taper off nicotine that is fine, and it’s also fine if they don’t. Such devices have the potential to help vapers maintain an adequate nicotine dose and not return to smoking. That is tobacco harm reductionno matter the intentions of PuffPacket’s inventors.



    Photograph of a participant in a tobacco harm reduction group at New York Harm Reduction Educators by Helen Redmond.

    • Helen is Filter‘s senior editor and a multimedia journalist. She is on the methadone, vaping and nicotine train. Helen is also a filmmaker. Her two documentaries about methadone are Liquid Handcuffs and Swallow THIS. As an LCSW, she has worked with people who use drugs for over two decades. Helen is an adjunct assistant professor and teaches a course about the War on Drugs at NYU. She lives in Harlem.

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