In today’s digital age, we find ourselves immersed in a sea of information, constantly pounded by news, opinions and myriad claims from various sources. While this access to information can be empowering, it also poses a significant challenge: distinguishing between fact and fiction.
Nowhere is this more critical than in the realm of medical knowledge, as the recent COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated. As the virus spread around the world, a contagion of conspiracy theories, cod science and fake news bombarded the public, hindering the drive to save lives.
Now misinformation about alternative nicotine products, such as vapes and nicotine pouches, also threatens to result in unnecessary premature deaths. Fortunately, by acknowledging the overwhelming scientific evidence that shows the lifesaving potential of these products, we can make informed decisions to shape a healthier future for those adults who wish to quit smoking.
Much of the misperception problem in Kenya lies in conflating tobacco and nicotine. Far too many people regard them as one and the same. Yet reputable scientists widely acknowledge that most of the harm associated with conventional cigarettes is caused by the toxicants in the smoke produced by the burning of tobacco.
As South African harm reduction pioneer Michael Russell memorably put it: “People smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that nicotine does not cause cancer.
Nicotine itself is not totally risk-free, but neither does it cause cardiovascular disease or the respiratory conditions that many smokers suffer from. It has been widely sold in medicinal form called Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) for many years.
Public Health England says that vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking. Meanwhile, smokers who vape are almost twice as likely to quit as smokers who use NRT, according toa study by Queen Mary University of London. These results are supported by the leading Cochrane evidence review of vaping, which concluded that vaping is 70% more effective than NRT.
This huge weight of evidence would seem to have one sensible conclusion: as smokers find it so difficult to kick their nicotine habit, we should get them to switch to less harmful alternatives like vapes and pouches.
Health authorities in England are doing just that and are giving away millions of vapes to smokers in an effort to make the country smoke-free by 2030. UK prime minister Rishi Sunak said of the ‘swap to stop’ scheme: “If you can help existing adult smokers to switch away from smoking to using vapes, there are clearly public health benefits of acting before the bigger problems come down the line.”
But nowhere provides a better illustration of the lifesaving potential of alternative nicotine products than Sweden, which is set to become the first developed country to achieve smoke-free status later this year.
Through its policy of making these products accessible, acceptable, and affordable, Sweden has become a global leader in reducing smoking rates and promoting public health. Ithas slashed its smoking rate from 15% to 5.6% in just 15 years. In coming months, that is set to fall below 5%, the level officially classified by WHO as smoke-free.
As a result, Sweden now boasts the lowest incidence of smoking-related diseases and the fewest premature deaths due to tobacco-related causes in Europe.
Sweden is evidently a public health success story and WHO should be holding it up as a template for African nations to reduce the terrible toll of cigarettes, which currently kill 8,000 Kenyans every year.
But still anti-tobacco activists – often driven by funds from ideological foreign entities – lobby our Parliament to treat tobacco and nicotine as one and the same, and continue to call for a total ban on less risky products such as vapes and nicotine pouches.
False claims and misleading information are sowing confusion and jeopardizing public health efforts. Instead, let us champion the power of science and pave the way for evidence-based decision-making in pursuit of better health outcomes for all.
Joseph Magero is chairman the Campaign for Safer Alternatives (CASA)
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Corporation.