Oct 20, 2022 - 11:45
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Science should logically trump suspicion, superstition and downright stubbornness when it comes to policymaking.      


In terms of scale, that most certainly applies to actions aimed at reducing smoking-related disease, which currently kills 8,100 Kenyans every year.


So we must hope that our policymakers are fully digesting a new international scientific study, which yet again reinforces the life-saving potential of alternative nicotine products as part of a smoker’s quitting ‘journey’.


Releasing the results of their detailed research on October 7, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) confirmed that tobacco-free nicotine pouches can reduce health risks compared to smoking. To protect consumers, the BfR went on to recommend the regulation of the manufacture, presentation and sale of nicotine pouches in Germany.


The BfR is an official scientifically independent advisory body to institutions in Germany on matters of food, chemical and product safety.


BfR scientists conducted extensive research into the material composition of tobacco-free nicotine pouches. They concluded that “switching from cigarettes to nicotine pouches represents a reduction in health risk for a person who smokes”.


Such evidence should be essential reading for Kenya’s anti-tobacco activists, who seek to deny access to safer alternatives, such as vapes and pouches, for adult smokers who are desperate to quit.


These activists say they are interested in saving lives. But their ‘quit-or-die’ approach to tobacco control treats all nicotine products as equally dangerous and leaves no room for harm reduction as smokers move away from traditional cigarettes.


Science, however, tells us that tobacco and nicotine are very different. It is clear from a large amount of evidence that it is the burning of tobacco that kills smokers.


Nicotine is not a cause of cancer, cardiovascular disease or the respiratory conditions that many smokers suffer from.


The BfR report states that the harm caused by nicotine products ranges from very low harmfulness to very high harmfulness, depending on the method in which it is delivered.            


In the low harmfulness category, BfR puts products such as Swedish snus (smokeless oral tobacco) and nicotine pouches or patches. Nicotine pouches or patches do not contain tobacco and are therefore significantly less harmful.


Sweden is a great example in this case, and that country's experience with snus and nicotine pouches provides compelling proof of the lifesaving potential of alternative nicotine products. Sweden has the highest rate of pouch consumption, but the lowest smoking and tobacco-related disease rates in Europe. Moreover, Sweden’s tobacco-related male mortality rate is 44% lower compared to elsewhere in Europe.


This empirical evidence makes the BfR’s conclusions very easy to understand. The reason why the BfR is advocating the regulated manufacture and sale of pouches is simple: they are proven to reduce health risks for smokers and are helping smokers to give up cigarettes for good.


The same applies to vapes, also known as e-cigarettes. Last month, the main public health body in the UK found – for the eighth successive time – that vapes pose dramatically less risk compared to traditional combustible cigarettes. It concluded that helping smokers switch to vapes should be a government priority.


Kenyan smokers would benefit from such an enlightened approach. But current policy dictates that they should have very little access to vapes or pouches.


High taxes on alternative nicotine products mean they are priced out of reach of most smokers who need them.


Meanwhile, activists spread myths and misinformation about nicotine to ensure consumers are not properly informed about their choices. This is simply anti-science. And it is effectively denying Kenyan smokers their best chance of quitting their deadly habit. This needs to change.

By JOSEPH MAGERO, chairman of Campaign for Safer Alternatives (CASA)

Policy Watch Africa Harm reduction through journalism-advocating for rational drug policy and human rights in Africa