Kenya ought to lead with science in the control of tobacco

Tobacco pic

Cigarette production at the BAT factory in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Tobacco smoking claims the lives of more than 8,000 Kenyans every year, according to the Tobacco Control Study released by the Ministry of Health earlier this year. Yet, Kenya is lagging in embracing the latest scientifically evidenced innovative and sustainable methods on how to help smokers quit.

Non-evidence-based policymaking and misinformation are considered some of the biggest obstacles to cutting tobacco smoking deaths and disease in the coming years by adoption of innovative tobacco harm reduction strategies, a message that was repeatedly driven home by international experts at the recent Global Tobacco Nicotine Forum (GTNF) in London.

Over the course of two days, speakers from all over the globe, including two African physicians, Dr Delon Human and Dr Kgosi Letlape, called on governments to lead with science in the fight against tobacco, much as they have with the use of vaccines in the battle against Covid-19.

Unfortunately, in Kenya, the push to put out the smokers’ light is not on track. Despite having an active tobacco-control programme, our smoking rates remain stubbornly high, with the same study by the Ministry of Health showing that approximately three million people continue to smoke tobacco every day.

By comparison, the countries that are having the biggest success in reducing smoking rates are doing so by focusing on innovative harm-reduction interventions and actively helping smokers to quit using science-backed alternatives. In 2018, the Ministry of Health spearheaded harm reduction interventions as part of the larger Universal Health Care (UHC) agenda by hosting the Eastern Africa Harm Reduction Conference.

However, there is slow adoption of readily available less harmful alternatives, such as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches.

To reduce smoking rates in our country and reap the public health benefits of this new science, we need to reformulate our approach to tobacco control and embrace newer and more effective interventions in a non-discriminatory manner.

During the recently concluded GTNF, David Sweanor, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, warned that we need "to move away from the moralistic approach that aims to ban nicotine", describing the belief that we can create a nicotine-free or tobacco-free society in the short term as “nonsensical”.

Instead, we need to focus on pragmatic policies and tools that help smokers to avoid dying or becoming sick as a result of their addiction as they smoke tobacco. To do otherwise is to abandon Kenya’s three million smokers, many of whom are desperately struggling to quit.

Kenya needs to adopt evidence-based strategies that have been scientifically proven to reduce the harm associated with tobacco smoking.

Earlier this year, Cochrane, one of the world’s most renowned evidence-based medical information networks, reiterated its position that smokers who use nicotine-containing products such as e-cigarettes are 70 percent more likely to quit than smokers who use Nicotine Replacement Therapy, say nicotine gum or patches.