Life-saving potential of alternative nicotine products

January 10, 2023

As Kenyans struggle to make ends meet in the wake of the pandemic and out-of-control inflation, it has never seemed more true, that the two certainties in life are death and taxes.

Luckily, just as a good accountant can ease the pain of taxes, there are innovative ways to reduce the risk of disease or fatality. By now, we know that condoms greatly reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, head guards protect against brain injury while playing contact sports and wearing a mask can help fend off Covid-19 when we congregate.

When it comes to cigarettes, which are reported by the World Health Organization to kill more than 8 million people every year, there are new and efficient ways to greatly reduce that risk. Welcome to the world of tobacco harm reduction, a strategy of encouraging adult smokers to use alternative nicotine products that are proven to be less harmful than combustible cigarettes.

Many believe that tobacco and nicotine are one and the same, equally risky. But that’s not what science is telling us. People smoke for nicotine, but they die from tar and the 6,000-plus toxic chemicals released when tobacco is burned. The main principle of THR is to incentivise smokers to switch to alternative nicotine products that don’t burn tobacco, thus dramatically reducing exposure to disease-causing chemicals, thus saving lives.

Global research shows that tobacco-free nicotine products are roughly 95 per cent less harmful than cigarettes. According to none other than the WHO, nicotine does not cause cancer.

THR products include e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches, which have been getting plenty of media attention in Kenya recently. A nicotine pouch is placed between the gum and lip, allowing the user to absorb nicotine orally.

There is no tobacco and no combustion during use, hence, no smoke or any of its toxic elements. This makes nicotine pouches a far less risky alternative for smokers. The main ingredients of pouches are water, plant-based fibres, sweeteners and flavourings.

In countries like Kenya, where many people have a long history of using oral stimulants, nicotine pouches can be a good option for adult smokers to switch from tobacco smoking.

Yet a research group from the University of Nairobi’s Faculty of Medicine has found that Kenyans are instead using unregulated and potentially dangerous tobacco and traditional oral stimulants, including areca nut and khat products.

This is driven by, amongst other factors, the limited accessibility to nicotine pouches in Kenya. Draconian taxes make these less risky products unaffordable to many who desperately need them, while anti-tobacco activists are campaigning to restrict their availability using a quit-or-die approach. Their biggest argument? THR does not work or is too new a field to be taken seriously.

But THR is not new and should be taken seriously. The pharmaceutical industry first embraced tobacco-free nicotine technology in the early 1980s, when they developed nicotine gums and patches to help smokers quit. Those nicotine replacement therapies are on the WHO’s list of essential medicines – and they carry the same low level of risk as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches.

It has been proven that alternative nicotine products offer a lifeline to smokers who are unable to quit cigarettes. Increasing taxes or restricting access to these less risky alternatives is not the way to reduce the terrible toll wrought by cigarettes. What we need are balanced, progressive policies that allow consumers to make informed choices.

Jamlick Kogi is a Policy fellow at the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement

This piece was originally published on The Star