Academia must stop fake science in promoting tobacco products
Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the world.
- We remain suspicious of ‘scientific’ reports being used to market emerging and novel products being shipped into the country by the big tobacco companies.
- The goal is to delay or stop the Ministry of Health’s new regulations against
We respect and rely on scientific research for our daily lives.
The data we use in advocacy and public education as well as that used by decision-makers and policy developers comes from research.
It’s, therefore, bad enough when some businesses use pseudoscience to push their products, and even more dangerous when they use the same to try and misdirect government policy.
We remain suspicious of ‘scientific’ reports being used to market emerging and novel products being shipped into the country by the big tobacco companies.
We already have enough problems with the tobacco industry in Kenya for continuously flouting the Tobacco Control Act 2007.
Globally, the history of the tobacco industry is filled with deceit. They have denied the harms caused by tobacco and the fact that cigarettes contain highly addictive chemicals.
In other instances, they have falsely marketed and promoted low-tar and light cigarettes as less harmful, yet research shows there is no safe cigarette. They all cause cancer, lung disease, heart attacks and premature death.
The industry has now turned its attention to new products termed as “safer alternatives to tobacco”. In Kenya, a few healthcare providers, journalists and university lecturers are being recruited to market these products.
For the lecturers, the work is simple. They need to regularly contend in medical journals, courtrooms, and regulatory arenas that the new chemical products pose little or no health risks to the public.
The goal is to delay or stop the Ministry of Health’s new regulations against
harmful products such as e-cigarettes, Snus and the highly addictive nicotine pouches.
Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the world. In Kenya, it is responsible for the growing burden of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes, chronic lung diseases, and heart diseases.
The Kenya National NCD Strategic Plan 2021-26 approximates that 39 per cent of deaths in the country are caused by NCDs, up from 27 per cent in 2014.
The strategic plan further warns that deaths from NCDs will increase by 55 per cent by 2030.
In Kenya, NCDs cause a significant economic impact on households by a decrease of 28.6 per cent household income and subjecting families to catastrophic expenditures that spiral them into a vicious cycle of poverty.
Tobacco itself kills about 9,000 Kenyan users every year, according to the Ministry of Health.
The strategic plan suggests Kenya must strengthen tobacco control, raise taxes on cigarettes and regulate the emerging tobacco products under the Tobacco Control Act.
This is what Health CS Mutahi Kagwe did in 2021 by directing that nicotine pouches must carry graphic warnings. Because of their highly addictive and harmful nature, they must also not be sold openly.
Instead of meeting these requirements, the industry resulted in hiring consultants and dons to push their narrative of “harm reduction”.
The industry itself says its business future lies in the smokeless tobacco and the electronic nicotine delivery system/ electronically non-nicotine delivery system.
They, therefore, do not support cigarette smokers totally quitting but would like them to switch to the new products. They also use the new products to recruit minors.
The harm reduction narrative says the new products are less dangerous. The industry also wants to either be exempted from paying taxes or pay very low taxes, for introducing something less dangerous than cigarettes.
They also want these products to be viewed as essential hence not subjected to tobacco control regulations.
Our stand as Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance is that those products should be banned.
WHO with its more than 8,000 professionals. who include the world’s leading public health experts, doctors, epidemiologists and scientists, abhors this harm reduction narrative.
The best form of harm reduction is quitting tobacco. There are medically proven ways available in Kenya, supported by the WHO and the Ministry of Health, to help those unable to quit on their own.
One of the reasons the tobacco industry loves this harm reduction narrative is it spurs debate, and the sector has a long history of manipulating public debate and health policy.
As the confusion spirals, it will continue to make sales and recruit more users.
If you follow closely, you will realise this pseudoscience being used to push the highly addictive products into Kenya is characterised by the use of vague, contradictory, exaggerated or unprovable claims.
In financing, this kind of “science”, the industry’s motive is of course financial gain, power and influence.
That is why our health policies must firmly be rooted in sound science, and not be swayed by pseudoscience.
Joel Gitali is the national chairman of the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance.