TOBACCO harm reduction, a tobacco control strategy that encourages smokers who cannot quit smoking to switch to harm reduced alternatives, is gaining momentum worldwide.
According to a professor at Imperial College London, up to 98 million consumers worldwide have already made the switch to harm reduced alternatives such as vape and snus.
In England, health authorities support smokers to switch to vaping to quit smoking and vape is now the most popular quit aid. According to a June 2021 report by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) in the UK, nearly two thirds of current vapers in Great Britain are ex-smokers (64.6%), and this proportion continues to grow.
At the recent virtual US E-Cigarette Summit, Professor Ann McNeill, who specialises in Tobacco Addiction at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, shared UK’s success in its tobacco control efforts.
In her presentation, she highlighted that the UK topped the Tobacco Control Scale 2019 chart, a report that describes tobacco control activities in 36 European countries. She further added that England has a very balanced approach to vaping, taking into account both compassionate and dispassionate stances.
The compassionate approach is smoker-focused, and the dispassionate approach entails a more evidence-based approach.
At the same virtual US E-Cigarette Summit, Professor Scott Leischow, Professor of Population Health and Director of Clinical and Translational Science in the Arizona State University, United States, said it is also important to ensure tobacco control measures do not create unintended stigma against smokers throughout their quit journey.
He said: “In tobacco control, stigma has been used actively in a variety of different tobacco control campaigns. When stigma occurs in tobacco control campaigns, there are intended consequences such as the decreased social desirability of smoking and the increase in smoking cessation incidences.”
However, Professor Scott underlines there are multiple unintended consequences from stigma in tobacco control strategies.
This includes stigma against those with tobacco-caused diseases, and the expanded stigma against the use of e-cigarettes by tobacco control practitioners who made unfounded claims of e-cigarettes being as comparably harmful to combustible cigarettes and stigma against those who make the logical decision to use reduced harm products instead of combustible cigarettes.
These unintended consequences can be detrimental as “multiple international studies have shown that those experiencing stigma have lower access to healthcare, adherence to treatments and support.”
According to Professor Scott, there is evidence on ways stigma can be reduced.
“One of the most important is to use person-first language. For example, saying ‘a person with tobacco use dependence’ rather than ‘a tobacco addict’. Other approaches include emphasising solutions and using sympathetic narratives to humanise those struggling with tobacco dependence.”
“The conclusion of all these approaches is the need to have stigma-reduction campaigns embedded in comprehensive tobacco control strategies. Action to address stigma among tobacco and alternative product users is needed now.”
These insights are particularly useful for countries like Malaysia where the awareness of tobacco harm reduction strategies is at a nascent stage.
In a survey commissioned by Malaysian Vape Industry Advocacy (MVIA), it was revealed that 88% of Malaysian vapers who used to smoke cigarettes have successfully quit smoking with the aid of vape.
The same poll also found that 79%, who currently vape and also smoke traditional cigarettes at the same time, have reduced smoking since taking up vape.
Clearly, for the smoking community in Malaysia, alternative products like vape, which are part of tobacco control strategies in some countries, have helped smokers in their quit journey. Further research, education and training should be considered in Malaysia to develop effective tobacco control strategies and aid smokers on their quit journey.