Unending drama about so-called safe alternatives to cigarettes


By Philip Jakpor 

The controversy surrounding Heated Tobacco Products (HTPs) have escalated, no thanks to tobacco industry attempts to practically buy acceptable public perception for its so-called less harmful alternatives to cigarettes.

The July 7, 2020 statement by the World Health Organisation (WHO) emphasizing that reducing exposure to harmful chemicals in HTPs does not make them harmless or reduce risk to human health, has done little to douse the flurry of media pieces linked to tobacco companies, especially Philip Morris International (PMI) and the safety of its IQOS product.

WHO had noted that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “authorization” of the marketing of the IQOS Tobacco Heating System of PMI under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, equally cautioned that, “the exposure modification orders do not permit the company to make any other modified risk claims or any express or implied statements that convey or could mislead consumers into believing that the products are endorsed or approved by the FDA”

But before the global body shed new light on the subject, PMI had portrayed the FDA statement, especially the section on authorization, as a nod for the public in the US and beyond to embrace the IQOS. The company’s CEO André Calantzopoulos was even quoted as saying “The FDA’s decision is a historic public health milestone” and that “The FDA determined that scientific studies have shown that switching completely from conventional cigarettes to IQOS reduces exposure to harmful or potentially harmful chemicals.

The sustained attempts at misrepresenting the FDA statement is not surprising to the global public health community.

Certainly not to medical experts who were quick to correct and counter what they see as a deliberate misrepresentation of the FDA stance on IQOS. It is however the public health community in Nigeria, currently embroiled in debates over so-called alternatives to cigarettes that must be on the alert.

Penultimate week, the Nigeria Tobacco Control Alliance (NTCA) and the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) warned about a Draft Policy on Conventional Tobacco and Non-Combusted Alternatives to Cigarette Smoking which is suspected to have been scripted by the tobacco industry and now in the receipt of Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment.

The alert is premised on the imminent danger of such a policy, if God forbid, it is accepted, and the fact that it could ultimately thwart or introduce confusion in the implementation of the National Tobacco Control Act, 2015 and the National Tobacco Control Regulations, 2019.

Though the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment is yet to comment on the draft policy, the development represents a known and consistent pattern that the tobacco industry employs to introduce confusion at any point tobacco control legislation is about to take root in any country.

We have had a handful of them in our clime. In 2011 when the National Assembly was set to pass the National Tobacco Control Bill, the loudest argument against the law was by the industry tobacco industry and its proxies, touting potential job losses as a potential fallout of a tobacco control legislation. Another argument equally sold to the government was the likelihood of revenue losses when the bill became law. To add a semblance of legitimacy to the arguments, some hurriedly formed think tanks were conscripted into the campaign.

A similar misinformation campaign began when the federal government in 2018 introduced new tariffs on tobacco products.

Though Nigeria’s new tariff at 16.4% excise burden was the lowest on the continent, the tobacco industry still mobilized groups, many of whom have disappeared from the radar, to query the policy and even threatened to sue the Nigerian government. As usual, the tobacco industry and their proxies never referenced the WHO findings which confirm that tobacco excise tax is a powerful tool for reducing tobacco use and is also a reliable source of government revenue. Instead, the industry predicted job losses and shutdown of tobacco firms operating in the country in the event of the introduction of a tax regime.

The eighth National Assembly under the leadership of Senator Bukola Saraki and Hon. Yakubu Dogara also had a dose of the tobacco industry pill through controversial recommendations that instigated needless back and forth, ultimately delaying the passage of the NTC Act until the very end of their tenure in office.

In all this, the biggest issue of concern now is the delay in implementation of the NTC Act 2015 and its Regulations 2019 and how the tobacco industry is consistently throwing banana peels on the way. Any doubt about the tobacco industry’s intention to continue in the business of acquiring more lungs was quashed by statements credited to Bahman Safakish, PMI Managing Director, Sub-Saharan Africa in a recent interview published in Daily Sun Newspaper.

He was unabashed in his argument on why the company will not quit cigarette manufacture and sale. According to him, “ending cigarette sales would automatically create a niche market for competitors and illicit traders who do not appreciate the need to replace the combustible hazardous smoking with the electronic vapour-producing device that is much safer health wise”.

Is it safe to then conclude that the so-called transition to less harmful alternatives to cigarettes promoted by the tobacco industry is yet another spin from their stable? No doubt it is.

  • Philip Jakpor is Director of Programmes, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

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