The alarming rates of smoking, obesity, and substance abuse pose an enormous challenge for parents and public health officials: how do we prevent children and adolescents from adopting unhealthy behaviors? One new option that may soon be available is the use of nicotine vaccines. Immunological therapies to help smokers stop smoking have shown promise in phase I and II trials; similar therapies could combat smoking addiction before it starts. Nicotine vaccines are distinctive because they confer protection not against infection—the normal target for vaccines—but against enticing pleasures that lead to unhealthy behaviors. As a result, using them preventively in children would be likely to arouse some novel ethical concerns that should be addressed before the vaccines become commonly available and their off-label use as a preventive measure becomes a real option.
In this paper, we consider whether it would be ethical for parents to vaccinate their children against smoking if a nicotine vaccine were to be proven effective as a preventive intervention for children or adolescents. We begin by explaining the current state of nicotine vaccine science and suggesting some likely ethical concerns about allowing parents to have their children receive a vaccine. We then present a preliminary argument for making vaccination permissible, at least if nicotine vaccination substantially reduces the probability that someone subsequently becomes a smoker. We consider a series of possible ethical objections, which are useful for identifying the conditions under which it would be ethical for parents to vaccinate their children against smoking. We conclude that it would be permissible for parents to give their child a nicotine vaccine if the following conditions were met: the vaccine is expected to result in a net benefit to each individual vaccinated, the expected harms from the side effects of the vaccine are lower than the nonvoluntary harms caused by smoking, and there are no other, less manipulative methods available that are as effective at preventing smoking initiation.