Asia-wide movement to support ‘safer’ nicotine products launched

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Tobacco harm reduction advocates gathered in Makati City last Friday, February 28, 2020, to launch the Asia- wide education and information campaign#SmokeFree4Life and urged the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Department of Health (DOH) to respect the rights of smokers who want to switch to safer smoke-free alternatives.

The regional movement, spearheaded by the Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (CAPHRA) and supported by thousands of vapers and former smokers from different countries, aims to curb the smoking epidemic in the Asia-Pacific and inform smokers about the existence of safer alternatives, such as electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), or electronic cigarettes, heat-not-burn tobacco products and snus.

“We, vapers and former smokers, and advocates of tobacco harm reduction, have an opportunity to add to the global discussions on ENDS, heat-not-burn tobacco products and snus as much safer alternatives to combustible cigarettes. We stand up for our freedom of choice. We stand up for our rights as consumers,” said Clarisse Virgino, the Philippine representative to CAPHRA.

“We stand up for the well-being of more than a billion cigarette smokers globally who are now presented with better and innovative nicotine products. We are here united and collectively call on the WHO and other health authorities to start caring for them by allowing them access to safer alternatives that they want and deserve,” Virgino said in her speech during the launch of #SmokeFree4Life in Poblacion, Makati City.

Virgino also addressed the questions on the safety of vaping, or the use of e-cigarettes, because of the e-cigarette, or vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI) cases in the US.

Virgino said EVALI cases were eventually linked to the use of vitamin E acetate and tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC oil—the same substance in marijuana. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as earlier reported by the US Food and Drug Administration said vitamin E acetate, used as a thickening agent for THC – the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis, was “a very strong culprit of concern” in EVALI cases. “Those substances were not supposed to be there in the first place. This is why we need regulation to prevent people from taking these substances,” said Virgino.

Public Health England’s annual reviews of all available evidence have consistently concluded that e-cigarettes are around 95 percent less harmful than smoking.

Virgino expressed hope that the education and information campaign about the benefits of ENDS, or electronic cigarettes, heat-not-burn tobacco products, snus and other smoke-free nicotine

products will gather the needed support ahead of the 9th Conference of the Parties to the WHO- Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (F CTC) to be held at the Hague, Netherlands in November.

The regular sessions of the Conference of the Parties (COP) are held every two years. The WHO has asked every signatory country to the treaty to submit a summary of its position on ENDS preparatory to FCTC CoP9. The Philippines is among the 181 signatories to the WHO FCTC.

Peter Paul Dator, president of Vapers PH―a nationwide consumer advocacy group which organized the Makati event with the support of Vaper Ako and CAPHRA, said WHO continues to insist on the quit-or-die approach “which we all know is ineffective against smoking as WHO’s own data show that there are still 1.1 billion smokers globally, resulting in eight million deaths due to smoking-related illnesses annually”.

About 80 percent of the 1.1 billion smokers in the world live in low- and middle-income countries like the Philippines. In the Asia-Pacific region, smoking causes a million deaths a year, said Dator.

“Data from the Department of Health and the Philippines Statistics Authority show that there are 15.9 million smokers in the Philippines, representing 14.7 percent of the population. Nearly 12 million or 76 percent of these smokers are interested or plan to quit smoking tobacco. Yet, WHO deprives them of the most effective option to make the switch,” he said.

“We believe that e-cigarettes and other smoke-free alternatives such as snus and heat-not-burn tobacco products which offer the same pleasure as cigarettes can help smokers quit smoking,” said Dator.

Dator, however, welcomed the passage of the amended Sin Tax Law which imposed excise taxes on e-cigarettes or vapes effective January 1, 2020. “This is momentous because in effect, the government now recognizes e-cigarettes as legal commodities in the Philippines,” he said.

CAPHRA Executive Director Nancy Loucas said cigarette smoking causes a million deaths per year in the Asia Pacific region, with smoke from combustion as the main culprit.

“We all know, from years of messaging and public service announcements, as well as from personal experience, that the use of combustible tobacco has killed millions and millions of people over the last 50 years. We also know, from science, that it is the smoke that kills the users of combustible tobacco, not the nicotine. We know that nicotine is no more harmful to adult humans than caffeine, and science has recently shown that nicotine can actually benefit adults with cognitive disabilities,” Loucas said.

“However, in spite of the science around nicotine and the various alternate consumption methods therein, there are those in positions of influence who would have the world believe that the use of alternative forms of nicotine is just as deadly and harmful as lighting up a cigarette,” she said, referring to global bodies such as WHO.

Loucas criticized WHO FCTC’s lack of engagement with the major stakeholders, the public, as they are mandated to do. She said WHO also ignored a letter sent to them in October 2018 by 72 tobacco harm scientific experts who stated that, “it is time for tobacco control to embrace tobacco harm reduction”.

Loucas said that as the FCTC has a mandate to pursue “harm reduction” as a core tobacco control policy, it has failed to acknowledge or implement this policy over the last 18 years. It has effectively deprived smokers of an effective way out of smoking, she said.

Loucas said this should not be the case as WHO FCTC is a non-governmental organization that is not eligible for public funding directly from any sovereign nation and therefore relies on donations. “We want you to understand that the WHO cannot compel or force a signatory to comply with their advice or guidelines, as they have no authority over sovereign nations’ legal systems,” she said.

Loucas then adviced local health authorities such as the DOH to bring up to FCTC-CoP9 discussion the consumers’ rights to choose less harmful products as a way to protect themselves from cigarette smoke.

Virgino said it is the reason they are launching the information campaign. “We are standing for our rights to be heard and included in the WHO discussion. We also want WHO to look at the science again and not ignore them, instead of resorting to moralistic approach, regarding ENDS and other alternative nicotine products which we consider to be the most revolutionary products in harm reduction. If we allow digital technologies to disrupt industries, why cannot we allow electronic innovation to improve public health?” she said.

“We want to inform the public as well as our government officials, including the DOH Secretary that we want to be heard. We say ‘No’ to smoking. We say ‘No’ to ban on vaping. We say ‘Yes’ to public health. We say ‘Yes’ to safer smoke-free nicotine products. We also say ‘Yes’ to regulation with representation,” Virgino said.

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