‘Smokers’ is a discriminatory description of people who smoke’; African journalists are encouraged to accelerate tobacco harm reduction adoption

According to Bernice Opondi, a Harm reduction advocate from Kenya “Our society seems to regard people who smoke tobacco cigarettes, marijuana and who take drugs with disdain and treat them as if they are un-religious. Therefore, society’s answer is to religiously pray for them to stop their habit.”

All life is sacred and needs to be protected, thus when there is a pandemic such as the recent outbreak of CoVID-19 along with other emergencies such as HIV/Aids, Malaria, Ebola, Cholera etc., the world joins hands to combat them with full force.

Globally, over 8 million people who smoke die from smoke-related illness every year. This must be regarded as a global concern — a pandemic like issue that needs to be addressed — especially for the African continent which is lagging behind in as far as the calls for African scientists and experts is concerned — for the adoption of tobacco and substance harm reduction public health strategies and tobacco control.

Panel discussion during the conference in Kenya on Thursday

During a panel discussion at the second Harm Reduction Exchange conference for African journalists held in Nairobi, Kenya on December 1, 2022, it was observed that there are many scientific innovations that cigarette manufacturers are coming up with that are in line with reducing tobacco harm, but they are yet to infiltrate the African market.

One of the biggest buyers of Malawi tobacco, Phillip Morris International (PMI) has invented the IQOS — a smoke-free innovation that continues to attest that the modified risk tobacco product is less harmful than tobacco cigarettes.

Over the past seven years since its invention, numerous studies conducted. 43 global independent labs have confirmed that the IQOS has a minimal effect on biological processes in people compared to conventional smoking.

The novel risk-reduced product is designed to assist people who smoke and who want to stop the habit but are failing to do so -mainly due to strong withdrawal effects – by offering them an alternative for their nicotine cravings.

Several versions of the IQOS have been made but they are mainly accessible in the developed western countries with South Africa — closest to Malawi — having them available on the market albeit at an expensive price point.

Other African countries’ leadership have altogether banned such harm reduction gadgets, as they still produce some smoke although such smoke is not as harmful as that from tobacco cigarettes.

In his presentation — entitled ‘Harm Reduction: Making a difference in Africa’ — Professor Abdoul Kasse from Senegal, one of Africa’s fiercest medical professionals who advocates for harm reduction strategy adoption, attested that harm from tobacco cigarettes is not from nicotine but from the tar.

He said there are misconceptions that people who smoke eventually suffer from various ailments, including lung cancer due t0 the intake of nicotine but stressed that it is not the nicotine but the carcinogens and the tar that cause illness, which are not found in safe nicotine products such as PMI’s IQOS.

Prof. Kassé — who is a world renowned and awarded oncologist and a Professor of surgery at the Cancer Institute in Senegal — emphasized that 30% of people who eventually suffer from cancer are associated with combustible tobacco cigarettes whose smoke also affects non-smokers — something which the IQOS and other safer nicotine products do not.

“Nicotine does not cause cancer but the tar does,” he emphasized. “People who smoke crave for the nicotine, which is very addictive as is caffein that is also found in coffee and other disease medicines. However addictive substances in coffee and various medicines is are consumed by one individual and do not affect those surrounding them, while smoke from tobacco cigarettes is affects those who do not smoke ”

Prof. Kassé said this is where there was need to press for harm reduction to protect those who do not smoke as well as assisting people to quit the habit by using safer nicotine products.

He said that “Harm Reduction is a powerful public health tool that has the potential to reduce cancer by 30% and should be at the centre of all public health development strategies”.

Journalists from Anglophone and Francophone countries

“Harm reduction has already benefited many people in public health and is the most viable alternative in tobacco control. It applies to areas where there is a need to reduce the harm associated with a practice or consumption of a substance that is overused in society leading to increased morbidity and mortality.

“Innovative Harm Reduction initiatives will help to keep more Africans alive. Tobacco Harm Reduction initiatives, including the use of popular e-cigarettes, nicotine patches and chewing gums have continued to generate a lot of misunderstanding in both the public health community and in the media.”

However, there is evidence that the use of potentially less harmful alternatives than cigarettes for those who are not willing or cannot give up smoking with currently approved methods may be a solution, not necessarily the best for everyone but by far better than continuous smoking.

“Where cessation repeatedly fails, switching to less harmful products is expected to result in benefits for many smokers,” said the Professor.

During various panel discussions, especially after the presentation of Dr. Kgosi Letlape, a central topic was that people who smoke are derogatorily regarded as social pariahs — thus the description of smokers should change to “people who smoke”.

It was observed that the society believes smoking and drug use is a sin and must be treated through religious prayers and the conference agreed that there was need for the media to play its critical role “in accelerating Harm Reduction efforts by informing and sensitizing people who smoke on the availability and benefits of alternative, potentially lower risk products to cigarettes”.

This was observed by one of keynote speakers, Dr. Tendai Mhizha, Group CEO of Integra Africa, who said: “Traditional cessation and smoking prevention norms are not the only ways that smokers who cannot or don’t want to quit can make healthier choices that cause less harm to themselves and those around them.”

She emphasized the role that journalists and media houses should play “in handling misinformation and disinformation in the tobacco harm reduction discourse that is actually perpetuating the death and disease caused by people continuing to smoke combustible cigarettes”.

“There has been a lot of disinformation surrounding the topic of nicotine and the alleged negative effects that e-cigarettes have on public health,” she said. “This has led to policies that disfavour risk reduced products and narratives that completely deny their benefits.

“The media has the difficult responsibility to curb the scourge of disinformation and misinformation on harm reduction just like on other socio-political stances that are prescriptive and do not uphold the consumers’ right to healthier lifestyle choices.”

In its second edition the Harm Reduction Exchange cast a spotlight on alternative ways to reduce harm among tobacco smokers — held under the theme ‘Harm Reduction: Making a difference in Africa’.

The conference focused on the progress being made through harm reduction strategies in all fields related to public health such as drug and alcohol abuse, excessive sugar consumption, skin lightening and other addictive and behavioural practices.

A wide array of harm reduction strategies and initiatives that are deployed towards reducing unnecessary deaths through non-communicable diseases were presented and discussed.

The other keynote speakers included Bernice Opondi, Joseph Magero, Jonathan Fell, Chimwemwe Ngoma, Clive Bates, Dr. Kgosi Letlape and Dr. Vivian Manyeki.

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