3JulyVape1

Forum airs the case for vaping

Electronic vapour products (EVPs) are not the enemy, and the tobacco control movement should leverage the benefits they offer in the pursuit of good public health, says Professor Gerry Stimson, British public health social scientist and harm reduction advocate.

The emeritus professor at Imperial College London, and a former honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was addressing the recent Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN) 2020, held online in June. The GFN is the only international conference focused on the role played by safer nicotine products, including vapes, in reducing smoking-related harms.

“The conference, normally held annually in Warsaw, is a platform that brings together policymakers, academics, scientists and public health experts, along with consumers and the media, to engage in dialogue and strategic engagement around tobacco and nicotine use, as well as control and production,” explains Asanda Gcoyi, chief executive officer of the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA).

Against the backdrop of now decades-old medical and scientific data that has proven it is the act of burning tobacco and the inhalation of smoke, and not nicotine itself that causes smoke-related disease, this year’s conference highlighted the role of safer nicotine products in reducing smoking-related harms. This was particularly significant within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and a world population under enormous stress on all fronts.

While many smokers quit on their own or with the use of nicotine replacement therapies (NRTs), many more cannot afford these or don’t have the willpower to go it alone. Nicotine products such as vapes provide a friendlier alternative to enable these smokers to safely quit combustible tobacco.

Speaking to the need for both broader acceptance and a more lenient approach to the global regulation of these alternatives, Stimson stressed:  “The global public health community must develop more ambition about what can be done – as well as a healthy dose of compassion for the individuals living with the consequences of inaction, seven million of whom will die this year”.

Leading tobacco harm-reduction expert and co-speaker at the event, Clive Bates, concurred. Having once been the Director of Action on Smoking and Health UK, he has also served as a member of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Strategic Unit as well as director-general with the Welsh government. 

Today the director of The Counterfactual, a consulting and advocacy practice, focuses on a pragmatic approach to sustainability and public health. To this end, he feels the time has come for scientists, policymakers, the media and the big money behind a number of powerful anti-smoking foundations to unite in recognition of the important role that nicotine plays in harm-reduction therapy and to support legislation around innovative alternative delivery systems.

Referring specifically to vaping as an alternative to smoking that “should be unequivocally good news”, Bates added: “If everyone got behind it, cigarettes could be obsolete within a generation. We would have won the war against the epidemic of smoking-related disease.

“However, it’s been depressing to observe the abuse of the science of tobacco harm reduction. Many studies’ conclusions aim at creating shock stories in the media but, when looked at in more detail, discuss trivial risks or misrepresent irrelevant findings. The tobacco harm reduction community needs to do more to challenge this science”.

Citing the harm reduction, tobacco and nicotine arena as “prone to some of the worst policymaking of all time”, Bates cautioned: “There has been a failure to do what good policymakers should do, which is to do proper impact assessments. There has been massive regulatory overkill.”

The result has seen the anti-smoking narrative in organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and numerous others promoting the idea that much less risky products such as vapes should be regulated just as strictly as very risky products such as cigarettes.

It is also among the reasons that VPASA has been campaigning strongly in South Africa for vaping to be disassociated entirely from the tobacco sector, and for sales thereof to be reinstated during the current lockdown level 3. 

Another speaker Professor David Sweanor of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa in Canada, agreed that separation of the two is essential: “Imagine what would happen if people get access to a broad range of low-risk alternatives to cigarettes and if they’re nudged towards those options through intelligent, risk-proportionate regulation?

“The opportunity we have is to fundamentally change the course of public health history, relegating cigarettes to history’s ashtray,” he said.

This article was first published by The Saturday Star Newspaper on the 27th June 2020. 

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