We need new tobacco control tactics to save lives
Dr Kariuki Micheal
Tobacco smoking claims more than 8,000 lives in Kenya every year, according to the Tobacco Control Study released by the Ministry of Health earlier this year.
Yet, Kenya is lagging behind in embracing the latest scientifically evidenced innovative and sustainable methods of helping smokers quit the habit.
Non-evidence-based policymaking and misinformation are considered the biggest obstacles to cutting tobacco smoking-related deaths and disease in the coming years by adoption of innovative tobacco harm reduction strategies, a message that was repeatedly driven home by experts at the recent two-day Global Tobacco Nicotine Forum in London.
Speakers from across 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 like they have with the use of vaccines in the battle against Covid, which are not 100 per cent risk-free but help to prevent serious illness.
Unfortunately, in Kenya, the push to put out the smokers’ light is not on track.
Despite having an active tobacco-control programme, smoking rates remain stubbornly high, with the study showing approximately three million people continue to smoke tobacco daily.
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, Health ministry spearheaded harm reduction interventions as part of the larger Universal Health Care 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 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 harm reduction interventions in a non-discriminatory manner.
During the GTNF, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, David Sweanor, warned that we need “to move away from the moralistic approach 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 avoid dying or becoming sick as a result of their addiction to tobacco.
To do otherwise is to abandon the three million smokers, many of whom are struggling to quit.
Kenya needs to adopt evidence-based strategies that have been scientifically proven to reduce harm associated with tobacco use.
Earlier this year, Cochrane, a world’s most renowned evidence-based medical information networks, reiterated that smokers who use nicotine-containing products such as e-cigarettes are 70 per cent more likely to quit than smokers who use Nicotine Replacement Therapy like Nicotine gum or patches.
Public health associations in the US, France, New Zealand and Canada have taken a progressive approach to new nicotine products and have seen smoking rates fall at twice as fast as the global rates.
In the UK, almost two million e-cigarette users have given up smoking entirely.
In France, 700,000 smokers report having quit thanks to nicotine alternatives such as vaping.
At the forum, Swedish expert Dr Karl Fagerström explained how his country has almost eradicated smoking thanks to tobacco smokers switching to nicotine pouches.
Sweden boasts the lowest percentage of smokers and the lowest rates of smoking-related deaths in Europe.
It has progressively shown success in cessation of tobacco smoking and adoption of innovative tobacco harm-reduction strategies.
Bringing Kenya in line with the world leaders in tobacco control is going to require a significant tactical change.
As warned by Dr Letlape, President of the Association of Medical Councils of Africa at the GTNF and I quote, “We can no longer be reliant on decades-old strategies aimed at combustible products with no reference to low-risk products”.
It’s time we also put science at the heart of our tobacco control policies and start saving smokers’ lives. —The writer is a medical doctor and public health specialist — [email protected]