Too often in matters of health and safety today, perfection becomes the enemy of improvement. The refusal to finance sleeping pods for babies, and the regulation of e-cigarettes, seem to be two recent examples of this mindset. Until Health Minister Jonathan Coleman over-ruled his officials this week on the funding of the wahakura that can protect babies from being crushed by an adult sleeping beside them, the Ministry of Health had regarded them as an unwise encouragement of the unsafe practice of "co-sleeping" with babies.
Doubtless a woven basket or a plastic pod is not as safe as putting a baby to sleep in its own cot, but for many mothers there are clearly cultural instincts in play that have been resisting this advice. As Herald reporter Olivia Carville has disclosed, the pods have been recognised as a worthwhile second best by doctors familiar with sudden unexpected death in infancy (SUDI), by coroners who have held inquiries into these deaths and even by some district health boards that have provided pods out of their discretionary funds.
After the devices came into use, New Zealand saw the first drop in Maori infant mortality rates in a decade. Since they are not expensive, many might question the need for them to be publicly funded. But if that is what it takes to give babies a better chance of surviving in their mothers' beds, the modest cost to the public is well worthwhile. The minister has now directed his officials to work with paediatric experts to develop a new "safe-sleep programme that incorporates the appropriate use of safe-sleeping spaces". Hopefully the message will be: separate sleeping is best but these devices are better than nothing.
The same message is likely to be given to smokers now the Government has issued a consultation document on a proposal to legalise the sale of e-cigarettes that deliver nicotine. E-cigarettes, as the Ministry of Health concedes, are much less harmful than tobacco. The cancer-causing elements in tobacco are the tar and other toxins in the smoke of burned leaf. E-cigarettes heat a liquid, sending nicotine into the lungs on droplets of vapour. At present, the nicotine cartridges can be ordered from overseas for personal use but cannot be sold in New Zealand.
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The Government has been persuaded to review that policy by the argument that e-cigarettes are an effective aid to quitting smoking. The consultation period, until September 12, will invite debate on that proposition and on restrictions and regulations that might be placed on the sale and promotion of "vaping" devices. A trial will be run to see whether e-cigarettes are as effective as nicotine patches and the like as an aid to quitting the smoking habit.
But it may reasonably be argued that this should not be the test. Unless vapour is a proven carcinogen like tobacco smoke, is there any reason to ban the delivery of nicotine by this method? Opponents fear it provides the same satisfaction as smoking, and maintains the same addiction, but it could be argued that if it is much safer than tobacco - particularly for those trying to beat the habit - it is the better of the evils.