July 23, 2020: Tobacco companies are coming to terms with the fact their main business – tobacco products – will become obsolete within the next decade. This is indeed a huge boost for anti-smoking campaigners who have been battling the tobacco giants for decades.
However, the change of attitude towards smoking cigarettes may also be driven by the increase in new products such as Vape, e-cigarettes and non-burning tobacco products.
Some of these products claim to be less harmful than cigarettes. But these alternatives should not be lumped together – they are not all the same.
More importantly, most of these products, especially Vape, are not regulated thoroughly and the quality of the products vary differently. While cigarettes are bad for health, production and sales of cigarettes are strictly regulated around the world .
A couple of weeks ago, the Global Forum on Nicotine which was held online dissected issues like these which are affecting the worldwide battle to improve quality of life.
Among the speakers was conference director Professor Gerry Stimson, emeritus professor at Imperial College London and a former honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
He said that instead of isolating smokers, smokers are the ones who are crucial to bringing about a change in how the world views tobacco in the long run.
“Tobacco harm reduction is good public health. It starts with the people who matter – people who smoke, and people who have switched to a chosen alternative – and it fosters and encourages change. Tobacco harm reduction is not antithetical to tobacco control; it should be part of it,” he said at the forum.
In Malaysia alone, approximately 25 per cent of the population smokes. Experts believe most of them come from low- and middle-income backgrounds. Nearly half of the smokers are expected to die of smoking-related illnesses.
Stimson added that instead of listening to the anti-tobacco lobbyists who are hell-bent on banning the use, encouraging alternatives to not disrupt society would be a better move.
“Currently, obstacles to widespread adoption of tobacco harm reduction include big US philanthropic foundations with a myopic view of tobacco control, creating divisions where none should exist, and international organizations wedded to a narrow view of what defines success.
“The global public health community must develop more ambition about what can be done – as well as a healthy dose of compassion for the individuals living with the consequences of inaction, of whom around seven million will die this year,” Stimson said.
Meanwhile, Prof David Sweanor of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, said if the public was provided with enough education and material, the switch from traditional tobacco products would be instantaneous.
“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? The opportunity we have is to fundamentally change the course of public health history, relegating cigarettes to history’s ashtray,” Sweanor said.
The Global Burden of Disease study estimates smoking directly accounted for 7.1 million premature deaths in 2017 with an additional 1.2 million deaths by second-hand smoke.
What the industry and smokers are asking for is for governments and health groups to be more accepting of tobacco alternatives instead of putting a blanket ban on it.
This topic in Malaysia is viewed as taboo, especially advocating the rights of tobacco users. There is no push even from lawmakers on this matter as it is seen to be morally wrong in the public eye despite the number of politicians themselves using the product.
Politicians in Malaysia need to have the courage to speak about these topics too. They need to address the predicament faced by heavy tobacco users. After all, smokers are voters too.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.