Lifestyle, Media Hits

Promote healthier alternatives to tobacco

Promoting alternatives to tobacco smoking in Kenya should be a priority for public health advocates to reduce smoking-related health problems.

This approach is more likely to yield a win-win situation for the economy, and the people, instead of restricting smokers with anti-tobacco policies. That will be a futile and endless ‘war’ because smokers will indulge themselves, anyway.

According to the Pan African Medical Journal, every year, more than 6,000 Kenyans die of tobacco-related diseases. Yet more than 2,737,000 adults continue to use tobacco each day.

While research studies have yet to establish the factors contributing to high tobacco consumption in Kenya, some suggest that users will increase if we do not implement tobacco control measures. This argument is one reason the government has heavily embarked on control regulations.

Harm reduction is the understanding that the preferred goal of abstinence is not always achievable. Therefore, it seeks to help people change to less harmful alternatives as a more practical approach.

In 2004, Kenya actively took part in the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control negotiations and was one of the first countries to ratify the treaty. Later in 2007, it enacted the Tobacco Control Act to control tobacco products’ production, manufacture, sale, and promotion.

The TCA in 2007 instituted a ban on the sale of cigarettes to minors, the sale of single-stick cigarettes to consumers, and smoking in public. However, data shows that tobacco use is still high, especially compared to other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Global Adult Tobacco Survey data shows that smoking in Kenya is more heightened than in Uganda, Nigeria, Senegal, and Cameroon.

This data should inform advocates of anti-tobacco regulations that the current control policies are ineffective and come at an enormous cost to the economy. Regulating the sale, manufacture, and promotion of tobacco forces companies to cut production, lay off some of their staff, and reduce the government’s tax revenue. Besides that, it also causes a hike in the price of cigarettes, making consumers seek substandard and unhealthy alternatives.

Some public health advocates support these regulations because, according to them, the high level of tobacco consumption negatively affects people’s health and quality of life. While that may be true, we have established that it truly causes thousands of deaths annually.

However, we need to clarify that the benefits of harm reduction outweigh the costs of tobacco control because millions of people still choose to use it despite its ability to harm them.

Materialising tobacco harm reduction has never been more critical than in this post-pandemic era. Since Covid-19, public health agencies have focused on broader health issues while maximising limited resources.

Experiences such as the US prohibition of alcohol in 1920-33 show that banning popular consumer products does not work. People keep smoking despite awareness of the adverse health risks associated with doing so. Therefore, based on evidence, a more effective method to tackle this issue is through progressive policies that allow smokers access to alternative, less harmful nicotine products.

There are healthier tobacco alternatives. These are vapour products, tobacco-heating products and modern oral products such as snus, nicotine pouches, and e-cigarettes.

These products are critical for effective tobacco harm reduction. While there is ongoing scientific and policy debate on the extent to which these alternatives can reduce tobacco harm, we need to take Sweden’s experience as an example of a country where the availability of safer alternatives has lowered the rates of smoking and tobacco-related disease.

Yes, we must prevent and prohibit underage use. However, adult smokers who wish to keep using nicotine through these safer alternatives do not need to be punished or deprived.

When we recognise the significant role that healthier tobacco alternatives play in harm reduction at the population level, it will help ensure that only high-quality products are available to consumers. This way, they will have access to information to make informed choices.

The best thing to do for your health is not to smoke at all. If you do, the next best thing to do is to quit. That’s in case you are wondering about my position on this.

However, since banning and heavily regulating tobacco is not adequate for its intention, a better approach encourages smokers to use healthier alternatives. The more than 2.5 million Kenyans are the group of people for whom this matters most.

Originally published in The Star.