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Lack of information about alternatives may increase smoking-related casualties

A few years ago, I was at a recording studio with a friend who had an object that looked like a pen. He flicked something on its side and put it in his mouth. As he was sucking on the pen-like object, which had a flickering light inside it, I got curious and asked what it was, then he replied in an amused tone, “it is a vape pen.”

Then, I was 24-years-old and I had never set eyes on a vape pen before, but I knew of its existence having read about it. Such is the case for many Nigerians who smoke. Many of them do not have information about vaping as a safer alternative to cigarettes.

As of 2015, the WHO estimated there are about 13 million smokers in Nigeria. A higher percentage of this group prefer smoking cigarettes, weed and other smoke-related substances. Premised on these preferences, it is not surprising that the country records up to 29,000 deaths from tobacco smoking annually.

The number of smokers in Nigeria has increased, especially among its youthful population. They graciously embrace public smoking of cigarettes and weed, despite the government ban. Though the ban comes with punishments ranging from N200 to N1,000 fine, imprisonment between 1-24 months, or both penalties. As of today, the country has one of the leading tobacco markets in Africa, with over 18 billion cigarettes sold annually.

Every day in Nigeria, smokers are always in a pact to cut back or quit smoking. When they want to quit smoking, these people use popular alternatives like patches, nicotine gum and e-cigarettes to help them through the process.

A study conducted in the UK revealed that e-cigarettes are safer, less harmful than combustible tobacco and highly effective in helping smokers quit. Another study in the US corroborated that vaping is far less harmful. Regrettably, only a few Nigerian smokers are benefiting from this alternative.

There is a shortage of information in Nigeria about vape pens. A survey conducted by Tobacco Harm Reduction (THR) Nigeria revealed that 87 per cent of the respondents smoked daily. When asked, 67 per cent were open to switching to the less harmful products, and 52 per cent requested more information on these alternate products.

Nigerian smokers do not know that the tobacco control laws don’t apply to e-cigarettes and that you can easily purchase nicotine vaping devices without a prescription. Also, you cannot be prosecuted for selling or using e-cigarettes. But smokers hardly know this because there is an age-long moral-cum-governmental embargo on advertising tobacco products.

The restriction on tobacco-related products has made information on alternative products scarce to smokers, making it inaccessible across the country. For many Nigerian smokers, vapes are a luxury commodity with an exorbitant price tag.

Where will lack of access to information lead us?

Given the relative costs and accessibility of vapes, it is not surprising that smoking remains far more popular than vaping. However, smoking-related diseases burden the overstretched Nigerian healthcare system with N526.4 billion yearly, which makes the economic cost of smoking a national issue, and a need for less harmful alternatives.

Nigerian youths continue to favour cheap and accessible cigarettes over vapes. However, to turn this situation around, the government, health workers, and other stakeholders need to amplify information dissemination on the benefits of ditching cigarettes for vapes. It will benefit everyone as it will help people struggling to quit to do it faster while addressing smoke-related diseases within the healthcare system.

Asides from those above, the collaborative effort among manufacturers, government, policymakers and public health agencies to have cheaper e-cigarettes will go a long way in solving tobacco-related issues in Nigeria.

Originally published in The Cable