Balancing Evidence and Public Health in Kenyan Tobacco Regulation

November 10, 2023

In Kenya, electronic cigarettes, or vapes, are at the center of a contentious debate as some senators push for a ban, lacking substantial evidence to support their stance. It is essential to weigh the pros and cons of the issue and take into account a more comprehensive approach that supports evidence-based regulation and tobacco harm reduction (THR). This opinion editorial explores the reasons behind the push for e-cigarette bans, discusses the potential benefits of THR, and presents evidence in favor of this pragmatic approach.

The desire to shield young people from the potential introduction to nicotine consumption is one of the main drivers behind the demand for a ban on vapes. Critics contend that vapes could act as a stepping stone for young people to begin using nicotine and eventually switch to smoking conventional cigarettes. But is there reliable data to show that this is the case? 

It is time for Kenya to adopt an approach that recognizes THR as a vital tool for enhancing public health while giving adults the freedom to make wise decisions.

While safeguarding teenagers from potential risks is a noble objective, Kenya must invest in thorough research to fully comprehend consumer consumption patterns of vapes in the country. 

Vapes are considered an integral tool in tobacco harm reduction, which is a public health strategy to lower the health risks to individuals and the wider society associated with using tobacco products. When vapes replace the consumption of cigarettes by adult smokers, they significantly reduce their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals, thus generally improving their health and well-being. 

Tobacco harm reduction is a practical strategy that aims to lessen the harm caused by smoking while accepting the fact that not all smokers are capable of quitting. A growing body of evidence supports THR’s potential benefits. Several studies have shown that vapes are less harmful than traditional cigarettes. Vapes are approximately 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes, according to a thorough report from Public Health England. Other studies have shown that vaping can be an aid for quitting smoking. They were found to be more successful at helping people stop smoking than nicotine replacement therapy in a randomized control trial that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

THR can lead to a decline in smoking rates. According to a study published by the World Health Organization EURO Office, completely substituting electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems for combustible tobacco cigarettes reduces users’ exposure to numerous toxicants and carcinogens present in combustible tobacco cigarettesBetter air quality for all is achieved by fewer people smoking and using cleaner substitutes, virtually eliminating exposure to secondhand smoke.

Critics have voiced concerns that vapes may appeal to non-smokers, particularly youth. However, these concerns can be addressed with a balanced approach that combines evidence-based regulation, public education, and access to safer alternatives. The focus should be on safeguarding public health while respecting individual freedoms. Vapes can not be legally sold to teenagers, like traditional cigarettes as well as alcohol. The approach of not selling to underage individuals has not led to the banning of alcohol; why should it be applied to banning a product with significant potential to improve the lives and well-being of smokers? It is like throwing the baby in the bath water. 

Public health proponents and policymakers in Kenya must carefully weigh the arguments while also considering the mounting body of research that supports the public health benefits of vapes. It is time for Kenya to adopt an approach that recognizes THR as a vital tool for enhancing public health while giving adults the freedom to make wise decisions. Such an approach can result in a healthier, smoke-free society and a significant decline in diseases linked to smoking.

By adopting a thorough strategy that takes THR into account, Kenya can protect the welfare of its citizens, lower the incidence of diseases linked to smoking, and build a world with fewer smokers and less smoking-related harm. Blanket bans and overly restrictive regulations without evidence may not be the most effective path forward. It’s time for Kenya to consider a balanced approach that includes THR as a valuable tool for improving public health.

Michael Abisoye is a communications and research associate at the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement.