By Derek Yach
Over the last decade, a range of new reduced-risk nicotine products such as electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) have appeared on the market. Millions of smokers have used them to successfully replace their regular cigarettes, thereby reducing their risk of cancer, heart disease and lung disease. However, this positive trend is under attack by tobacco-control advocates and physicians who fear that the new products will be as bad as cigarettes, or who simply do not trust the tobacco companies that are creating some of these products.
I can understand their views. For decades, I led tobacco-control efforts, first in my native South Africa, then globally as a cabinet director at the World Health Organization (WHO). While at the WHO, in 1998, I invited tobacco companies to present their progress on what have become known as reduced-risk nicotine products in a scientific setting. We were unimpressed. But times have changed. E-cigarettes, and now a wider portfolio of reduced-risk nicotine products, are emerging from the laboratories of small start-ups and large tobacco companies. All have a common aim: give smokers a product that removes the harmful and deadly components of tobacco products (the tar), while providing the nicotine they crave in a similar dose and with the full experience they have as a smoker.
Some companies are now investing billions of dollars in e-cigarettes, hoping they can maintain a market for their products without killing their consumers. The science in favour of e-cigarettes is maturing and the U.K. governments recent evidence update suggests that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful to health than normal cigarettes. And earlier this month, the Royal Society for Public Health issued a statement on nicotine being no more harmful to health than caffeine. Based on this evidence, it is time for public health groups in the U.S. and Canada to recommend that smokers who seek to quit should switch to e-cigarettes.
Forty-two million Americans still smoke. Almost 500,000 Americans die from their habit every year. We need to act faster to adopt smarter regulations aimed at accelerating the transition out of harmful tar-based cigarettes.
As for media trends, a review by the Vitality Institute found that over the last two years, there was an 1,800 per cent increase in e-cigarette mentions in top-tier media coverage in the U.S. E-cigarettes now eclipse tobacco and traditional cigarettes in stories about smoking and its effects. Yet most e-cigarette articles never highlight the products benefits. Instead they focus on scary stories: exploding e-cigarettes; kids overdosing on nicotine liquid; and even doctors and medical associations concerns about e-cigarettes being as harmful as, or worse than, regular cigarettes. The impact of these distorted media stories has led many smokers who had moved to e-cigarettes to move back to regular cigarettes.
Last week, we saw a glimpse of what those policies might look like. Three leading health economists writing in the New England Journal of Medicine Frank Chaloupka, David Sweanor and Kennet Warner called for tobacco excise taxes to be set proportionate to the harm the product causes. These three have played a key role over the last 20 years in placing excises tax and pricing at the core of WHO, World Bank and government actions taken to curb tobacco use. Having worked with them, I know that their voice is taken seriously by the worlds finance ministers.
My view is that we need to build a significant gap between the actual prices of regular tobacco products and reduced-risk products, starting with an increase in taxes on the former, without favoring local brands (a practice followed in many developing countries) and by keeping the tax on reduced-risk products very low for at least two decades or until they command 75 per cent of the total sales of nicotine products. Careful attention should be paid to raising excise taxes on regular products as their use declines, with the goal of maintaining total government revenues.
The regulatory framework matters. But what has historically mattered even more is the advocacy of physicians. Because of that, it is also important to educate physicians about the differences between the health effects of nicotine and tar. Physicians dominate the policy space and their support will be needed to bring e-cigarettes into the mainstream.
Forty-two million Americans still smoke. Almost 500,000 Americans die from their habit every year. We need to act faster to adopt smarter regulations aimed at accelerating the transition out of harmful tar-based cigarettes and for the first time, we have a range of scientifically proven products that will help smokers quit. E-cigarettes have to be part of the solution.
Derek Yach is chief health officer of The Vitality Group.
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