Tobacco Harm Reduction in Asia blocked by health agencies and anti-tobacco lobby groups

Monday, 3 May 2021 00:09 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A barrage of misinformation and anti-tobacco harm reduction propaganda is getting in the way of public health progress in Asia


The Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction (GSTHR) issued its latest report ‘A Burning Issue for Asia and the Far East’ recently, which found that health agencies like the WHO together with anti-lobby groups such as Bloomberg Philanthropies exert tremendous pressure on governments to make it difficult to promote Tobacco Harm Reduction (THR) as a public health strategy. This results in policies that are more restrictive than regulation for traditional cigarettes, and discourage smokers from switching from combustible cigarettes to less harmful alternatives, it adds. 

During its online presentation hosted by Knowledge Action Change and the Association of Vapers India (AVI), it was revealed that 60% of global smokers live in Adia and the Far East, alongside 90% of global consumers of smokeless tobacco. This results in nearly half the global deaths from smoking from the region. Yet, in many Asian countries THR products are banned or restricted, providing no real access or alternative to those who want to quit tobacco smoking. 

This is on the back of proven statistics from Asian countries like Japan, where cigarettes sales have slumped after the take-up of less harmful heated-tobacco products, and similar results in South Korea and Malaysia from vaping. A barrage of misinformation and anti-tobacco harm reduction propaganda is getting in the way of public health progress in Asia, the report finds. 

Nancy Loucas, Executive Coordinator for the coalition of Asia-Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates stated during the forum that the biggest challenge THR faces in Asia is not only government interests in tobacco manufacturing, which is pretty huge in the region especially India and China, “but also the reach of philanthropic colonialism; that is foreigners coming in to countries, using private foundations or NGOs that they fund to help guide governments in developing policies around safer nicotine products. These people do not want safe nicotine products available. They do not want the concept of THR to be promoted or to be celebrated. And this is because it doesn’t serve their personal economic agenda.”

Considering the benefits of vaping versus traditional cigarette smoking, Samrat Chowdrey, Director of AVI said that as a result there are 750 million tobacco smokers in the region and just 19 million vapers, which is a huge gap that Asian governments should address. “Asian lives matter and it is time we started doing something meaningful about it than pushing measures which are not only not working despite two decades of efforts, and making the situation worse,” he added. 

The government of the United Kingdom through Public Health England conducting independent research found that vaping is up to 90% safer than tobacco smoking and has made necessary policy changes to help its citizens make the switch. Why are these benefits not open to the people of Asian nations?

Harry Shapiro, the lead author of ‘THR A Burning Issue for Asia’ opined the facts on tobacco smoking harm come out from the WHO itself. He remarked that the WHO’s tobacco free initiative could hardly survive if it wasn’t getting philanthropic money from a particular organisation that has an anti-vaping agenda. 

“Some countries in the region have a track record in scientific and technical innovation. I think the opportunities are there for the region to take a leap. Bearing in mind that China is providing most of the world with e-liquid and vaping devices, the other key message I would mention is that solutions have to be regional and local. So, the products that need to be developed need to be not only affordable but appropriate and acceptable and part of the traditions of different countries.”

“Lots of people these days, because of COVID, have become more interested in the evidence base. Is it worth wearing a mask, or does social distancing work and are these vaccines effective? There’s a lot of focus now being put on the scientific clinical medical evidence within public health. And I think it may be utopian: but now is not a bad moment to be pushing the evidence base to wherever and whoever is prepared to listen, because It is in the public domain at the moment in a way it hasn’t been before the pandemic,” Shapiro averred. 

In conclusion Chowdrey added he firmly believes lower middle-income countries are those mostly requiring THR strategies as they have the larger population of smokers or tobacco users. However, these countries lack any quick support or other measures to support current smokers to quit, switch to reduced harm products and even block off access to medical care should they suffer consequences. “So, with all these factors, why would you not want to give those tobacco users action to proactively safeguard their health? Tobacco Harm Reduction is the solution that is most effective for these countries, and I hope that governments begin to see this value sooner than later,” he said.