The number of smokers globally remains unchanged since the year 2000 at 1.1 billion, and the estimated global annual cost for smoking is 1.4 trillion according to the recent statistics by the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction 2020.
The Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction maps the global, regional and national availability and use of safer nicotine products (SNP), the regulatory responses to these products, and the public health potential of tobacco harm reduction.
On November 4th 2020, the key industry players congregated stakeholders from various parts of the world to discuss burning Issues as a continuation of their series which documents the development of Tobacco Harm Reduction as well as use, availability and regulatory responses to safer nicotine products around the world.
In case one is wondering what Tobacco Harm Reduction is, GSTHR explains it as a range of pragmatic policies, regulations and actions that either reduce health risks by providing safer forms of products or substances, or encourage less risky behaviors’.
Harm reduction does not focus exclusively on the eradication of products or behaviors’, using alternative nicotine products, THR offers new choices to millions of people worldwide who want to switch away from smoking, but have been unable to with the options previously available.
There is substantial international, independent evidence that the safer nicotine products that are available today – including nicotine vaping devices (e-cigarettes), heated tobacco products i.e. IQOS and Swedish-style oral SNUS – are demonstrably and significantly safer than smoking tobacco.
The outstanding question still remains, can THR work effectively especially in low-and-middle income countries given the challenges Mwawi Ng'oma stated using Malawi as a sample country to draw emphasis on her findings? In her presentation “The challenges for fostering Tobacco Harm Reduction in LMICs” in the concluded virtual summit, she cited lack of up to date data, inadequate resources, limited awareness, affordability, culture i.e. in the Ngoni and several African tribes who consider tobacco as part of marriage initiation, few or no cessation centers and inadequate recovery services to support smokers who want to quit will make THR difficult.
She however urged low-and-middle income governments to draw new measures to make THR products affordable, available and socially acceptable and to pass on the message, data and research appealing to the said countries own problems.
Clive Bates a renowned Tobacco Harm Reduction advocate, pointed out the ‘good, the bad and the ugly' outcomes for THR in the same “No Smoke, No Fire” virtual summit 2020 as he put emphasis on the deeply estranged understanding of how public health, the community and the world at large should work regarding Tobacco Harm Reduction, “it is not a smoking cessation product, it is a rival value proposition to smoking for the way to consume nicotine as a relatively not innocuous consumer life style product.
We need a risk proportionate regulatory regime as well as much more mindfulness on trivial laws and implausible risks. We also need a new narrative to be much more cognizant of the consequences of blundering in a clumsy relentless negativity.” he said.
Considering all the above, for THR to work, Jena-Fetalino a Public Relations practitioner based in the Philippines suggested demolition of misinformation, “THR is both a victim of misinformation and disinformation and unfortunately this is at the cost of people’s lives.
This is robbing smokers of an opportunity to reverse bad choices, there is no doubt of the existence of a group that demonizes THR but there is also no point in winning them over, simply because they have already made up their minds and are standing their ground however shaky it is.
The best that we can do is damage control by insulating the minds of the public from further deception.” she said.
Jena concluded by advising that “we need to get the THR story out, use scientific evidence and rely on experts and researchers to change attitudes because they make conclusions based on evidence; utilizing both traditional media and social media to magnify the THR voice and keeping the consistency of positive messaging”.
Samrat Chowdhery a former journalist closed the panel discussion by sharing the impact of bans and disproportionate regulation on safer nicotine products highlighting that “all is not bad, science is slowly and steadily winning over ideology. While there is a lot of negative news, we have seen countries reverse course and we are hopeful.” he summarized.
The current phase of effective THR is based on putting the advocacy concepts into play and urging media, politicians and all parties involved to do their job and making sure that active smokers and those considering, to start to understand the strategic difference between combustible and non-combustible products. Tobacco Harm Reduction is in its nascent stage and still has a long way to go.