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Dispelling myths and fallacies about smoking alternatives.

As alternatives to cigarettes have grown in popularity, the misconceptions about them seem to have increased accordingly.

It may be only natural that any innovation is initially greeted with a level of misunderstanding and even suspicion. But when early false impressions are held and disseminated long after being refuted by compelling evidence to the contrary, people are denied the right to make properly informed decisions.

Tobacco-free nicotine products are saving the lives of smokers around the world. This is a fact. But activists campaigning against these products in Kenya have been so successful that the fallacies they promote are believed not only by smokers but also by some physicians, policymakers and the public in general. These myths undermine effective tobacco control and smoking cessation efforts, so let’s set the record straight on just a few of the worst.

The most significant myth is the claim that alternative nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches, are just as harmful as traditional combustible cigarettes.

That is emphatically not the case. Extensive international research has found that, for instance, e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful than traditional combustible cigarettes. That’s a huge margin that anti-tobacco activists choose to ignore.

There is a straightforward explanation for this reduction of harm. In regular cigarettes, the burning of tobacco releases a mix of thousands of toxic chemicals. E-cigarettes and nicotine pouches do not contain tobacco and there’s no burning, so that risk is removed.

Even the World Health Organization confirms that nicotine does not cause cancer, nor does it cause cardiovascular disease or the respiratory conditions that many smokers suffer from. These ills are instead, caused by toxicants in cigarette smoke that are generated when tobacco is burned.

Another myth doing the rounds in Kenya is that there’s no evidence that nicotine pouches are less risky. But the US Food and Drug Administration has found that pouches “will significantly reduce harm and the risk of tobacco-related disease to individual tobacco users and benefit the health of the population as a whole”.

A research group from the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Medicine has found that the risk profile of nicotine pouches is significantly lower than other traditional tobacco and oral products. In Sweden, which records the highest consumption rate of nicotine pouches in the world, men have Europe’s lowest level of tobacco-related deaths.

Despite this compelling evidence, activists are seeking greater restrictions on nicotine products, including draconian taxes that will make them even less affordable for smokers who wish to quit or switch.

Activists claim higher prices are needed to prevent use by minors. But this ignores the simple fact that the majority of e-cigarettes currently being sold in Kenya are illegal, as a direct result of high tax rates imposed on the legal market.

Traders in the shadow economy do not care what age their customers are, whereas legally sold products can be age-restricted. Further tax increases will simply increase black market sales.

If government and health agencies want to curb the negative impact of smoking on the public, prevent underage persons from smoking and reduce smoking-related deaths, they need to filter out the noise created by anti-tobacco militants. They should, instead, focus on science which shows that making alternative products accessible to adult smokers will help save lives.

It is important that all Kenyans work together in tackling misinformation. Misconceptions, coupled with restrictive government policies and high taxes, are creating barriers to helping smokers switch from harmful smoking to less risky nicotine products.

Edam Shem is the Kenyan Affairs Manager at the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement.

This piece was originally published on The Star.

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