Conversations on Vaping and Harm Reduction Must Continue

The year 2020 was most challenging for all sectors of society in South Africa, and not least the infant vaping industry. This is due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and the havoc it continues to wreak on the entire world. For vaping especially, disinformation by anti-vaping advocates only served to create even more uncertainty about Electronic Vapour Products (EVPs) and whether or not it led to harsher symptoms for COVID-19 sufferers.

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, a series of studies have been published proving that there is no established causal link between vaping and harsher symptoms of Covid-19. The vaping and Covid-19 link question is one of the misconceptions around vaping. Chief among these is that vaping is just as harmful as, if not more dangerous than, smoking. This is despite reputable institutions, such as Public Health England and Royal College of Physicians, maintaining that vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking combustible cigarettes.

Several countries that had initially taken a hard-line against EVPs based on lack of scientific evidence are now beginning to engage in earnest conversations regarding vaping, which has been encouraging. The South African government would do well to have a similarly open process which is grounded on a good faith attempt to understand the science underpinning claims about EVPs being harm reduced alternatives to smoking.

To demystify and address a number of misconceptions around EVPs and vaping, the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) hosted a series of webinars that brought together public health experts, scientists and policy makers to have open conversations on vaping. The recurring theme from the webinars was that vaping is by far the less harmful alternative to smoking and regulation should focus on ensuring access for smokers, youth prevention and promoting product safety. Current attempts to lump vaping together with smoking are more likely to drive the industry underground and foment illicit trade, just as has happened with tobacco control.

As we have seen in countries such as the United Kingdom, that have embraced EVPs as part of their harm reduction strategies, smoking rates have declined. Much against what has been purported, vaping is not that prevalent amongst teens and is not a gateway to smoking.

In 2021 we aim to continue from where we left off in 2020 and engage in conversations with our stakeholders to ensure that South African policy makers and the public at large are adequately informed about EVPs. The series of webinars we hosted and the engagements we had with policy makers have encouraged us to believe that we can come up with an appropriate regulatory framework to ensure the growth of the EVP industry and access for adult smokers wishing to switch to less harmful alternatives to ingesting nicotine and contribute to tobacco harm reduction strategies in South Africa. This is the honest conversation for which all of us, public and private, must be willing to call if we are to record any measure of progress on the tobacco harm reduction journey we are embarking on.