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Tobacco industry seeks lifeline in e-cigarettes


Tobacco industry lists e-cigarettes as one of the ways of dealing with addiction. FILE PHOTO | NMG



  • Habit Kenya has highest prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa but registers decline.

From years of research, tobacco companies launched vapes (e-cigarettes), Swedish snus, nicotine pouches and heated tobacco products as alternatives to cigarettes that kill half of smokers.

The tobacco industry says this approach, dubbed ‘harm reduction’ is the only way out for most people who are addicted to smoking.

However, the World Health Organisation and Tobacco Controls Board say that the industry is shrinking and the fancy packaging, flavoured taste and concealed use are an attempt to lure the youth.

Globally, tobacco control efforts led by international agencies such as the WHO have lowered smoking rates.

However, 80 percent of the world’s smokers live in low- and middle-income countries that are least able to implement tobacco control measures and their healthcare systems are struggling to cope with disease burden of smoking.

Kenya has had the highest recorded smoking prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa but even this has been on a decline from 11.6 percent of adult population in 2014 to 11 percent in 2017.

However, the overall numbers have grown from 2.5 million to three million.


“There are 256 flavours of nicotine, some taste like chewing gum; these flavours, colours of packaging and concealing mode of consumption are all meant to win customers,” Wilfred Leshan, the Tobacco Control Board chairman said.

But experts attending the Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN) in its seventh conference this year say e-cigarettes that the industry is switching to as an alternative to combustible nicotine will save lives.

The industry reforms targeting the 1.1 billion smokers worldwide with safe nicotine products say harm reduction is the only way to take care of those who cannot quit.

“Smoking is the single biggest cause of non-communicable disease (NCD). It kills half of all those who smoke,” GFN said.

The Global Burden of Disease study estimates that smoking directly accounted for 7.1 million premature deaths in 2017 with an additional 1.2 million deaths attributed to second-hand smoke.

For decades, it has been known that it is the burning of tobacco and the release and inhalation of smoke that cause disease.

While some smokers have been able to quit, those who cannot are at a huge health risk when they use combustible tobacco.

GFN says, where available and affordable, safer nicotine products such as vapes and snus give smokers more options to drop combustible tobacco.


“Imagine what would happen if people get access to a broad range of low-risk alternatives to cigarettes if they get information on relative risk, and if they’re nudged toward those options through intelligent, risk-proportionate regulation?” asks David Sweanor of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa.

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