Harm reduction takes centre stage at Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum

Monday, 18 February 2019 00:02 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Disruptive innovation has changed the way we live and work, giving shape to new markets, products and value networks across almost every sphere since the turn of the century. 

Just like every other sector that has dabbled with disruption, the tobacco industry too has been subject to major innovations from within, especially in relation to the sphere of nicotine or electronic cigarettes.  

A number of major global tobacco companies have already moved into selling e-cigarettes delivering nicotine hits – minus combusting tobacco – by heating a tank of liquid containing the chemical to create a vapour that can be inhaled. These do not contain cancer causing substances found in normal cigarettes. 

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom parliament’s science and technology committee found that e-cigarettes are around 95% less harmful than traditional tobacco cigarettes, adding they must be offered as an effective alternative to help people quit smoking tobacco. The committee has even recommended the UK to reduce taxes on e-cigarettes or vaping products, and even allow vaping in places where smoking is banned. 

Public Health England estimates that up to 20,000 people are successfully quitting smoking annually due to e-cigarettes, and British MPs are backing vape as a fix to traditional smoking. These determinations are based on an independent review by Public Health England in 2015, which was reviewed by British MPs over a period of 10 months. 

A disruptive process can take longer to develop than conventional approach, and the risk associatedis much higher. Accordingly, adoption or acceptance of this approach at global scale will take considerable time. The global tobacco industry is taking note and is considering the importance of nicotine as well as tobacco in its future, as was discussed at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF) in London in last year. The forum consisted of representatives from all major tobacco manufacturers, suppliers,experts in public health, think-tanks, scientists and politicians discussing the future of the industry and the impact on harm reduction with e-cigarettes.

In some markets, including the UK, Japan and Canada, e-cigarettes are already competing heavily with traditional tobacco products, with consumers deciding on the future of the industry. 

“With the expertise and capital available within the industry, we will prove that whilst smoking may seem the problem, the tobacco industry will be part of the solution.The fight against the industry and its products is because of what happened in the past. But because of that – products with reduced risk potential might not become available to consumers,” lamented MichielReerink, Vice President of Japan Tobacco International and Chairman of the GTNF Advisory Board, calling on the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control, which he described as a closed event, to recognise the concept of harm reduction and transition into a framework on smoking control. 

As detailed at the forum and witnessed in UK, consumers in Britain are excited by innovative vaping products that are designed and dedicated to reducing harm to consumers.For instance, British American Tobacco revealed it had invested over $ 2.5 billion over the past six years on harm reduction research, employing over 1,500 scientists the world over. 

These measures are supported by robust government policy. In the UK, government and public health authorities have embraced the concept of harm reduction for tobacco. The Royal College of Physicians and health agencies such asAction of Smoking and Health (ASH) UK have all seen the potential of vaping for combustible users to switch. 

“We recently had the parliamentary committee looking at the role of vaping products. The point coming out of the committee is that there is no policy reason justifying treating vaping products the same as cigarettes. This is harm reduction in action. Innovative products and good government policy supporting consumer interest. We urge countries such as UK and Canada to share their experiences with countries like India and Australia that at present have a vaping ban.These governments are effectively telling ‘I need to be legally complaint and smoke cigarettes which are more harmful, or use vaping products and be a criminal’. This is not good policy, we need to overcome such ill-informed policy,” remarked Jerry Abelman, Director BAT, addressing the GTNF forum.

Developing countries such as Sri Lanka, India and Far East Asian nations with a high incidence of non-communicable diseases should pay greater attention to innovative solutions such as vaping to control and reduce smoking-related harm. Whilst long-term consumer-based studies and evidence is still lacking with respect to vaping, or e-cigarettes, the immediate data presents a compelling case. In Sri Lanka, 75% of deaths as results of non-communicable diseases, with one in five deaths recorded as premature. The World Health Organization lists 34% of these deaths under cardiovascular disease and lists that 33% of Sri Lankan males are smokers. This includes cigarette and beedi smokers in a market consisting of over 8 billion sticks annually. Whilst there can be no immediate quick fix to the issue, a planned and regulated advent towards products that guarantee harm reduction will proffer greater benefits to the nation. 

“Even if we don’t know all of the long-term consequences,it is a known fact that 79,000 people die [of smoking in the UK each year],” said Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, who chaired the House of Commons committee.

“Being equivocal about e-cigarettes results inevitably in fewer people switching, which guarantees that more people will die of smoking. Can we morally justify that given the known facts and given what the scientists are telling us about the relative harm?”