Is Tobacco Industry’s innovation a win for public health?

“Unless urgent action is taken to reverse this global epidemic, tobacco will kill as many as one billion people this century, taking a greater claim on human health than any other single disease.” World Health Organization

I’m sure by now you must be familiar with e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, which allow smokers to continue using nicotine but without the deadly smoke which is responsible for the deaths of half of all lifelong smokers. Since people smoke for nicotine but die from tar, safer alternatives should be encouraged. It has long been known but tragically under-explained, that it is the smoke that comes from lighting a cigarette that causes smoking related diseases, not nicotine. I also came to find this out much later in my years of tobacco control advocacy.

Safer alternatives are playing a major role in saving smokers’ lives and helping them to quit. Since there is no combustion, harm reduction is being embraced by many smokers in an attempt to quit or simply enjoy nicotine without the harmful effects caused by smoking.

With cigarette smoking rates dropping thanks to vaping, it’s no surprise that Big Tobacco would be all over e-cigarettes. And they are, in a big way. But is this a bad thing? If tomorrow every smoker worldwide switched to vaping products, would the number of tobacco-related deaths reduce drastically? It seems there’s a lot of interest in painting e-cigarettes as a dastardly ploy by Big Tobacco to continue profiting from nicotine addiction, but is it really the case? Having been a tobacco control advocate for many years, the simple rule is always distrust any idea by Big Tobacco.

The tobacco industry did not invent e-cigarettes, in fact they were very late to enter the market. The first tobacco industry to enter the e cigarette market did so in 2012, about 9 years after the invention of ecigs. They are a firm minority in the vaping industry. Tobacco stocks began falling thanks to vaping products & the tobacco industry has taken notice and began adjusting accordingly. Personally, I think this is a win-win situation for the smoker & public health. The bottom line is that lives will be saved.

Although few will blame the public or policy makers for being wary of the scientific claims of Big Tobacco given their record, tobacco companies are making their data on these products publicly available and are urging scientists to scrutinize their research and conduct their own independent studies.

Governments across the world have never been reluctant to take money from the tobacco industry in efforts to curb smoking. Some tobacco control acts here in Africa have clauses that go as far as proposing that the Industry should create a tobacco control fund to fund activities that assist smokers in the region quit. Since tobacco control advocates term the Industry’s money as ‘blood money’, wouldn’t accepting this funding be unethical? What about accepting taxes from the Industry?

Vaping products have been able to do in a short span what tobacco control could not achieve in decades. Big tobacco knows this too. Disruptive technology is here! We need to stop tobacco-related deaths, Big Tobacco offering less harmful products should be a welcomed move, for smokers’ lives sake. Tobacco companies have both the capacity and a key role to play in reducing the harm caused by smoking.