THESE are ground-breaking days in the global fight to reduce the deadly toll of smoking cigarettes. In the UK, lawmakers have just announced a pioneering scheme to give free vapes to one million smokers in an effort to help them quit their tobacco habit.
It’s the first initiative of its kind in the world and part of the UK government’s commitment to reduce smoking rates to 5% by 2030, the level at which a country is officially classified as ‘smoke-free’.
Meanwhile, over in Sweden, they’re already about to hit that smoke-free target – 17 years ahead of schedule.
Last week (April 28) I spoke – via digital link – at an international research seminar in Johannesburg which celebrated Sweden’s historic achievement and explored how it could help us to save hundreds of thousands of lives here on the African continent.
Key to the Swedes achieving the smoke-free milestone has been their government’s approach to alternative nicotine products such as vapes and oral pouches.
They have developed a policy formula under which these far less harmful alternatives to cigarettes are made as available, affordable and accessible as possible to adult smokers.
It’s quite a story. Only 50 years ago, 49% of Swedish men were smoking regularly. Today the country has the lowest smoking rates in Europe.
The health impact of its plummeting cigarette consumption is remarkable. As well as having the lowest percentage of tobacco-related diseases in the European Union, Sweden also has a 41% lower incidence of cancer and a 38% lower cancer death rate than other EU countries.
These are the sort of public health outcomes that every country should be striving for. And the UK’s new ‘swap to stop’ scheme suggests it is keen to catch up.
Tragically, too many governments – Kenya’s included – seem determined to move in the opposite direction.
Lawmakers here, egged on by dogmatic anti-tobacco activists, treat less harmful alternatives the same as their deadly counterpart, the traditional combustible cigarette.
The Kenyan government classifies vapes and pouches as tobacco products and subjects them to the same high taxes and marketing restrictions that apply to far more harmful cigarettes.
This binary approach makes it very difficult for smokers to give up.
Hence, smoking rates in Kenya remain stubbornly high at 20.8% of adult men – and 11.8% overall.
It’s encouraging to see that other countries are adopting a more pragmatic approach to tobacco control and following the science.
For some years now, the UK’s leading public health body has declared vapes to be 95% less harmful than traditional cigarettes.
Last year, in the largest review of its kind, researchers from King’s College London found that “the use of vaping products rather than smoking leads to a substantial reduction in exposure to toxicants that promote cancer, lung disease and cardiovascular disease”.
They concluded: “Helping people switch from smoking to vaping should be considered a priority.”
The handout of free vapes to smokers in England is clearly a step in that direction and follows the harm-reducing roadmap laid out by the Swedes.
To save the lives of smokers in Kenya, our policymakers must now heed these lessons and make their decisions based on evidence. Ensuring that less harmful alternatives to smoking are affordable, acceptable and accessible is essential if we are to have any hope of a smoke-free future.
By Joseph Magero, chairman of Campaign for Safer Alternatives (CASA)