Malawi: Media Asked to Be an Ally in Tobacco Harm Reduction

19 November 2020

Public relations practitioner and publisher of The Medical Observer, Jena Fetalino from the Philippines has said "Only well informed consumers can make better decisions about switching to better choices for them namely with adopting tobacco harm reduction (THR) options and that can be achieved if media can bring about a balanced informative discussion that educates people about scientifically substantiated non-combustible tobacco products."

He advocated for this in her presentation 'The Demolition of Misinformation' during the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction (GSTHR) -- Burning Issues virtual conference -- on Wednesday.

The Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction (GSTHR) -- Burning Issues virtual conference was held free, open access online on November 6, co-hosted by KAC in London and Lilongwe-based NGO THR Malawi.

A range of speakers including Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London and KAC Director Professor Gerry Stimson, Burning Issues Executive Editor Harry Shapiro, and leading neuropsychopharmacologist and drug policy expert Professor David Nutt, called for a change.

"Tobacco harm reduction can best be achieved if misinformation and disinformation campaigns are demolished by getting this THR sensitisation as widely shared as possible," said Jena Fetalino.

"Consider the traditional media as an ally and not as an enemy. There is some misconception that the media reports on negative or sensational stories but journalists do their job well if they are provided with truthful and factual information."

"Scientific evidence is best offence and defence and information from scientific experts is more trustworthy than from prohibitionists."

She added that misinformation works against public health and she quoted an expert as saying "it will be tragic if thousands of smokers who could quit with the help of non-combustible nicotine products are being put off due to false fears about safety".

She further said much as social media can mislead in sharing of information, if used with caution it can be used to magnify scientists' voices in THR for people to make sound judgements.

"Consistency is the key to urging smokers, who would otherwise continue to smoke and not quit, to opt for non-combustible products by providing truthful and factual information through the traditional media as an ally," she said.

From Malawi, Mwawi Ng'oma, Programme Manager for St John of God Hospitaller Services, Malawi, touched on challenges for fostering THR in low and medium income countries (LMICs), saying there is need to make THR more affordable, more appealing, widely available and acceptable.

She, however, said most THR products in Malawi -- such as nicotine gum and nicotine patches are expensive and thus the continued combustible smoking that is extremely cheap on the market.

She said in the case of Malawi as an Low and Middle Income Country, there is insufficient tobacco control measures to monitor sales, pricing, whom to sale and age restrictions.

"The ban on public smoking is not being enhanced and there is no provisions of smoking lobbies in public places, which is leading to cases of passive smoking," she said.

"Advertising on dangers of smoking on packaging is not as aggressive as it should be."

"Most focus on our healthy living information is on communicable diseases such as cholera and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic other than on combustible tobacco products."

Also present was Samrat Chowdhery, President of The International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations, Director of the Association of Vapers India, also referred specifically to low- and middle-income countries.

"Given that over 80 percent of tobacco users are in low-and middle-income countries with meagre means to deal with tobacco-related consequences, the focus ought to be unwaveringly on harm prevention, by allowing people to exercise the choice of avoiding death and disease by switching to affordable and accessible risk-reduced alternatives."

In his presentation 'The good, the bad and the ugly outcomes for tobacco harm reduction', Clive Bates, former Director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK) and current Director of The Counterfactual, a consulting and advocacy practice focussed on a pragmatic approach to sustainability and public health, took cognizance that people will not stop smoking any time soon, this is exactly why THR is so direly needed.

He said there is the need to inform and encourage smokers to opt for THR because their habit has a high risk on them and on others who passive smoke.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) records, over 8 million people die from smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer and the unfortunate part of this public health crisis is that it also affects non-smokers.

Thus the encouragement on the use of THR products as campaign for good global health practices.

Guest speaker Professor David Nutt, founder of DrugScience and Edmund J. Safra Professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London pointed out that:

"To reject the opportunity of tobacco harm reduction is, perhaps, the worst example of scientific denial since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus in 1616."

"Our data shows that, worldwide, millions of people are choosing to improve their own health by switching from combustible tobacco. But this needs to scale up, fast. Tobacco harm reduction should become a genuine consumer-led public health success. But instead, we are seeing the start of a war on nicotine", warned Harry Shapiro, Executive Editor of Burning Issues.

Professor Gerry Stimson, Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London and KAC Director, said: "This is a decisive moment for the future health of 1.1 billion smokers around the world, who deserve better than the status quo.

"Policymakers engaged in the current European Commission Tobacco Products Directive revision and next year's WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties must consider the evidence for tobacco harm reduction's role, listen to consumers, and deliver policies that genuinely focus on reducing the global toll of smoking-related disease and deaths as quickly as possible. If integrated into tobacco control, harm reduction could be a gamechanger in the battle against non-communicable disease."

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