South Africa, Let’s Not Ignore What Has Worked in Other Countries in Developing Effective Tobacco Control Policies

In the pursuit of public health, South Africa finds itself at a critical juncture. As we grapple with the persistent challenge of tobacco use, especially amongst young people, the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) believes government must re-evaluate its approach and learn from the successes of other nations. While outright bans might be well-intentioned, they have never achieved their goals, as seen previously with several industries.

Countries like the United Kingdom (UK), United States (US), New Zealand (NZ), and Sweden have made remarkable strides in tobacco control by embracing harm reduction strategies and enabling access to safer alternatives. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2023 health report, the smoking prevalence rate in the UK currently stands at 21.7% while the US smoking prevalence rate currently stands at 8.8%. In NZ, the smoking prevalence rate stands at 8%. These nations have recognised that a one-size-fits-all approach, centred solely on generational smoking bans, is not sufficient to address the complex landscape of nicotine consumption.

By prioritising harm reduction and supporting adult smokers in their journey towards quitting, these countries have witnessed tangible improvements in public health outcomes. Safer alternatives, such as vaping, have played a pivotal role in this progress, offering smokers a less harmful alternative while significantly reducing the harm associated with traditional tobacco products.

In the UK, for instance, vaping has been endorsed as a valuable tool for smoking cessation by public health authorities, leading to a substantial decline in smoking rates. Similarly, the US has seen a surge in adult smokers transitioning to vaping, resulting in notable reductions in tobacco-related illnesses.

New Zealand’s progressive approach to tobacco control, which includes robust regulation of nicotine products and support for harm reduction strategies, has positioned the country as a global leader in public health. Likewise, Sweden’s experience with snus – a smokeless tobacco product along with vaping has demonstrated the effectiveness of harm reduction in reducing smoking prevalence.

In South Africa, the government has chosen a different path to tobacco control. Whilst, accepting and even adopting harm reduction in dealing with drug use, for instance, government is seemingly not in favour of such an approach to reducing smoking prevalence in the country.  The Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill’s proposal on regulating Electronic Delivery Systems and Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) similarly to combustible tobacco is not based on science but may have unintended consequences. While it is commendable to see government making efforts to reduce smoking prevalence, the way it is going about it is not the solution. South Africa has a proud history in harm reduction policies, and VPASA believes this needs to be extended to tobacco use if we are to realise decreases in non-communicable diseases. There is ample data, studies and countries that serve as case studies on effective tobacco harm reduction strategies and government should not ignore them for the sake of pleasing anti-tobacco/vaping lobbyists.