This week, the 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, is being held in Cape Town.
Health leaders are discussing the best ways to end the death toll caused by cigarettes. Africa seems like an appropriate place for this conference as in contradiction to the rest of world, smoking rates are on the rise on the continent with smoking rates being much higher here, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
World health leaders such as Dr Tedros Adhanom from Ethiopia and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, have declared that all countries must do everything in their power to lower smoking rates. Reality is that most time at the conference will most likely be spent on policies designed to target the tobacco industry rather than on strategies to tackle the enormous public health problem.
If governments are serious about reducing smoking-related diseases, they will have to look at effective, science-based harm reduction policies. One merely has to look at the UK where officials are actively recommending that smokers switch to e-cigarettes and vaping products, which still provide smokers with nicotine without the smoke and tar caused by lighting tobacco on fire.
Harm reduction is however not a new concept when it comes to public health. Health leaders recognise its effectiveness in mitigating health problems caused by high risk behaviours.
This seems to differ when it comes to tobacco. It’s as if many in public health consider it heretical to come out in support of harm reduction strategies. In fact, organisations like WHO encourages governments to place the same restrictions on vaping products as they do on deadly tobacco.
South Africa is notably resistant against harm reduction policies. Last November, the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi announced a wide-ranging plan to update the existing tobacco laws, including new restrictions on public smoking, advertising bans and graphic warnings on cigarettes. He also plans to include vaping products under these laws, which would be a big blow to those using vaping to reduce or quit smoking.
Thing is, leaders need to start recognising that promoting harm reduction products options to smokers who won’t or can’t quit is a major key to reducing lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease that kill smokers.
Organisations such as the American Cancer Society, Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians have all come around and are now in support of e-cigarettes and vaping products. It’s been proven that vaping is 95% safer than cigarettes, Japan is seeing a rapid decline in smoking as people are switching and in Sweden, snus (an oral tobacco product manufactured under strict standards) has led to the country to have the lowest smoking rate and tobacco-related disease and death figures in Europe.
The facts are there, governments need to take a cautious approach to regulating smoking alternatives. Unfortunately, science is ignored. The World Conference on Tobacco or Health should highlight what Japan, UK and Sweden are doing to harness science and technology to leave cigarettes behind.
It’s not nicotine or even tobacco that kills people. It’s the inhalation of carbon-monoxide and tar from burning cigarettes that cause lung and heart diseases which in turn kill so many smokers annually.
By applying bans, regulations and taxes to non-combustible nicotine products only means that more Africans will continue to smoke and die.
By Gregory Conley
*Gregory is an attorney and the President of the American Vaping Association, a nonprofit that advocates for sensible government policies towards smoke-free nicotine products.