The raging debate in the West and Asia on the harm reduction associated to vaping has received little or no attention in Africa. Vapers use electronic cigarettes, or heat-rather-than-burn tobacco products, which are becoming increasingly popular in the West.
Developed nations are grappling with reducing or even eliminating the harm caused by smoking. Wood smoke, and any smoke for that matter, contains substances that could have serious adverse health effects. Exposure to significant doses of these substances can aggravate lung and heart conditions. If they are carcinogens — such as carbon monoxide, arsenic, benzene and acetaldehyde — they can cause cancer.
Such is the seriousness of tobacco smoking that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has developed a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. It contains a series of measures against tobacco smoking with a view to rolling back the habit.
The measures include higher prices and taxes for tobacco products, protection from exposure to tobacco smoke, regulation of the contents of tobacco products and regulation of tobacco product disclosures.
Others are packaging and labelling of tobacco products; education, communication, training and public awareness; tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and reduction of tobacco dependence as well as cessation.
Sadly, cigar and cigarette smokers increase the risk of cancer every time they light up; hence the call to ‘unsmoke’ oneself. Tobacco harm reduction encourages smokers to switch to less risky alternatives to combustible cigarettes.
Studies show that nicotine is not the primary cause of tobacco-related diseases and death. It is primarily the toxins and carcinogens in tobacco smoke, say public health institutions such as Public Health England, UK’s Royal College of Physicians, and Food and Drug Administration in the US.
Electronic cigarettes, heat-not-burn and other smokeless tobacco products do not combust, and hence less likely to be as harmful as smoking cigarettes.
The trending global debate is about the amount of scientific investment going into how the world can reduce tobacco harm.
I’ve recently interacted with science that shows that there are great possibilities of ‘smoking’ without combustion — where the tobacco is heated in an electronic device, at a temperature less or equal to 350 degrees Celsius.
An organic thing burning at above 500˚C significantly increases the carcinogen substances in the smoke. Scientific studies have found more than 4,000 substances in smoke from burning organic substances at above 500˚C.
Nicotine is addictive. Surprisingly, even some big tobacco companies who are investing in tobacco harm reduction and developing safer alternatives now say that, if you haven’t started smoking tobacco products, you shouldn’t.
But if you are an adult smoker and do not wish to stop, then, in my view, the scientists burning the midnight oil to bring us alternative ways of ingesting nicotine are on a path that could significantly reduce the possibility of aggravating a health condition or causing an ailment.
There are safer alternatives for adult smokers who can’t, or won’t, quit. I’ve tried heated, rather than burnt, tobacco products. They are expensive but worth it; I get a smoke-free inhalation, taste and enjoyment of using tobacco. There are many other heated tobacco products or nicotine delivery systems being developed that would get adult smokers to enjoy tobacco without burning it.
WHO statistics show that there are about 1.1 billion smokers — about a seventh of the world’s population. We could reduce the incidence of those smokers dying from lung cancer or heart disease if we encouraged the development of these new “smoke-free” technologies.
Authorities should consider informing citizens of products that reduce the harm caused by burning tobacco. Not that they should promote them, but they ought to interact with the emerging science to authoritatively determine whether and how to encourage smokers to move to products that reduce the incidence of carcinogens that come from burning cigarettes.
I certainly feel safer vaping because it is less risky and greatly reduces carcinogenic substances — and there is investment into the science to make those products even safer.
With the evolving science, we may see a significantly smoke-free world in 30 years. Kenya — and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa — must not be left out of these scientific conversations happening elsewhere that could bring huge savings to our public health sector.
Dr Njenga is the executive dean, Strathmore Business School. [email protected]