Tobacco control

On December 15, 2022

Issues surrounding health of tobacco smokers and people around them has long been a serious cause of worry. At the second Harm Reduction Exchange conference for African journalists in Nairobi, Kenya, recently, scientists and health experts deliberated over the fate of smokers who cannot or don’t want to quit the act.

They strived to proffer far better alternative to tobacco smoking, not only for the good of the smokers but also for the health of people around them.

Due to a plethora of fake news (online and offline) the media were charged to painstakingly and conscientiously disenchant and disabuse the minds of members of the public and feed them with the right information and accelerate the harm reduction adoption.

They said: “Media have a critical role to play in accelerating harm reduction efforts by informing and sensitising cigarette smokers on the availability and benefits of alternative, potentially lower risk products to cigarettes. Traditional cessation and smoking prevention norms are not the only ways that smokers who cannot or don’t want to quit can make healthier choices that cause less harm to themselves and those around them.” 

Integra Africa Principal, Dr Tendai Mhizha, maintained media houses should handle misinformation and disinformation in tobacco harm reduction discourse, “which is already perpetuating deaths and diseases caused by people continuing to smoke combustible cigarettes.

“There has been a lot of disinformation surrounding the topic of nicotine and the alleged negative effects that e-cigarettes have on public health. This has led to policies that disfavour risk -reduced products and narratives that completely deny their benefits.

“The media have the difficult responsibility to curb the scourge of disinformation and misinformation on harm reduction just like on other socio-political stances that are prescriptive and do not uphold consumers’ right to healthier lifestyle choices.”

With the theme, “Harm Reduction: Making a Difference in Africa,” the conference focused on the progress being made through harm reduction strategies in all fields related to public health such as drug and alcohol abuse, excessive sugar consumption, skin lightening and other addictive and behavioural practices.

Abdoul Kassé, a renowned and award winner Oncologist and Professor of Surgery, Cancer Institute, Senegal, said: “Harm reduction is a powerful public health tool that has the potential to reduce cancer by 30 per cent. It should be at the centre of all public health development strategies.

“Harm reduction has already benefited many people in public health and is the most viable alternative in tobacco control. It applies to areas where there is a need to reduce the harm associated with a practice or consumption of a substance that is overused in society leading to increased morbidity and mortality. 

“Innovative harm reduction initiatives will help to keep more Africans alive. Tobacco harm reduction initiatives, including the use of popular e-cigarettes, nicotine patches and chewing gums, have continued to generate a lot of misunderstanding in both the public health community and in the media.

“There is, however, evidence that the use of potentially less harmful alternatives than cigarettes for those who are not willing or cannot give up smoking with currently approved methods may be a solution, not necessarily the best for everyone but by far better than continuous smoking. Where cessation repeatedly fails, switching to less harmful products is expected to result in benefits for many smokers.”

Kenya’s Dr Vivian Manyeki stressed: “Tobacco harm reduction has a solid scientific and medical basis. It has a lot of promises as a public health measure to assist millions of smokers.

“Many smokers are unable, or at least unwilling to achieve cessation through complete nicotine and tobacco abstinence. They continue smoking despite the very real and obvious adverse health consequences and against the multiple public health campaigns. Conventional smoking cessation proposals should be complemented with alternative but more realistic options through harm reduction.”

Tobacco harm reduction was introduced to mitigate the damage caused by cigarette smoking – the most dangerous form of tobacco use, and the leading cause of preventable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“Nicotine has an addictive potential but plays a minor role in smoking-related morbidity and mortality. Across the world, there is growing interest among experts in novel approaches towards tobacco control and there is an on going discussion that reducing the negative effects of smoking can be also achieved by tobacco harm reduction,” Dr Kgosi Letlape, Ophthalmologist, president, Africa Medical Association and president, Association of Medical Councils of Africa, said. 

Tobacco cessation is a key factor in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Abstinence from tobacco smoking is one of the primary goals for health promotion and management globally but it is unachievable in a huge amount of cases. This task remains unaccomplished despite extensive public campaigns on the health dangers of tobacco smoking. Thus, the development of novel strategies to reduce smoking is imperative.

Moreover, the use of innovations in smoking products has been adopted by several smokers to reduce the health risks of smoking.

A policy manager, Voices of Community Action and Leadership Kenya (VOCAL-Kenya), Bernice Apondi, said: “The Harm Reduction Approach prevents drug-related deaths and overdose fatalities and is the only way out for addicts. In the same way these alternative technologies can reduce tobacco harm and accelerate the journey to a smoke-free world as they reduce exposure to toxicants.”

A wide array of harm reduction strategies and initiatives deployed to reduce unnecessary deaths through non-communicable diseases were presented and discussed.

The Harm Reduction Exchange brought together high-level policy makers, physicians, scientists and health policy experts with media stakeholders from Africa in a lively mix of speeches, presentations, and panel discussions. Speakers included Prof Abdoul Aziz Kasse, Ms Bernice Opondi, Joseph Magero, Jonathan Fell, Chimwemwe Ngoma, Clive Bates, Dr KgosiLetlape, Dr. Vivian Manyeki and Dr TendaiMhizha.