Harm Reduction & The High Cost Of Misinformation

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Scientific studies increasingly show the value of tobacco harm reduction tools such as vapes for smokers, and yet legislative bodies continue turning a blind eye to the important role they play in smoking cessation. At a time of critical decision-making around tobacco control legislation, this attitude could cost the health of many South Africans, says Asanda Gcoyi, CEO of the Vapour Products Association of South Africa. 

Science is an evidence-based numbers game; the more research that’s done to prove a theory, the more the theory becomes embedded in fact – and the more myths can be debunked when misinformation raises its ugly head. 

For years, evidence in respect of the health risks associated with tobacco-related diseases has been overwhelming. A plethora of studies support the argument that smoking is the single biggest cause of non-communicable disease. 

As recently as 45 years ago, renowned British medical professor Michael Russell noted: “It’s not the nicotine that kills smokers; it’s the delivery mechanism.” He was referring to the fact that while people smoked to satisfy their nicotine addiction, they died from the tar, and the more than 70 other carcinogenic chemicals released whenever a cigarette was lit.

But smoking is a tough habit to quit, and that’s what makes the all-important role that harm reduction has to play so critical. Coincidently, Professor Russell is known as the father of tobacco harm reduction in terms of nicotine replacement therapy.  

Despite the growing volume of scientific evidence from reputable institutes over the past few years, the value of electronic vapor products (EVPs) as highly effective harm reduction or less harmful alternatives continue to be downplayed. Even worse, the sensational spread of misinformation impedes the rights of smokers to make educated choices about alternatives to conventional cigarettes.  

While we are reminded of the old adage “Why spoil a good story with the facts?”, we also need to be increasingly mindful of how harmful this misinformation can be to the health of both our citizens and our economy. This is particularly pertinent given that South Africa is very close to adopting new tobacco control legislation that will see EVPs painted with the same brush as combustible cigarettes.  

This misinformation in respect of EVPs is rife, and it’s a global problem. Ranging from misperceptions around their attractiveness to the youth market to assumptions that smokers will simply become “dual users” of both vapes and combustible cigarettes, it is slowly eroding their efficacy as a harm reduction tool – despite the fact that respected bodies such as Public Health England (PHE) have spent the past six years publishing evidence that proves vaping is at least 95% less harmful than combustible cigarettes.  

Indeed, misinformation is now so prevalent that it has been flagged as a notable concern in PHE’s seventh and latest (2021) independent report on vaping. As the UK moves towards its goal of being a smoke-free nation by 2030, the report notes that while vaping plays a key role in tobacco harm reduction, and is the most popular aid used by adult smokers, perceptions around the dangers of smoking versus vaping are increasingly out of step with the evidence, and must be urgently addressed.  

The report also notes that only 29% of current smokers believe vaping is less harmful than smoking, compared to a staggering 38% who believe the two are equally harmful. This paints a bleak picture considering the evidence that smoking combustible cigarettes caused 75 000 deaths in England in 2019. At the same time, vaping helps around 50 000 UK smokers quit every year. As the report states: “Thousands more could have quit except for unfounded safety fears about e-cigarettes.” 

These unfounded fears have certainly made their way into not only the draft of South Africa’s new Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems Bill (2018) but also into the way the market has been regulated during the lockdown phases of COVID-19.

The result was that this fledgling vapor products industry found itself subjected to the same restrictions as combustible cigarettes, severely stifling its potential to become a significant and much-needed contributor to the economy.  Indeed, the high cost of misinformation runs deep. 

For more visit: vpasa.org.za