Embrace new evidence-based tobacco control to save lives

Kenya needs to adopt scientifically proven strategies to reduce harm associated with tobacco smoking. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Tobacco smoking claims the lives of more than 8,000 Kenyans every year, according to the Tobacco Control Study released by the Ministry of Health this year. Yet, Kenya is lagging behind in embracing the latest scientifically evidenced methods on how to help smokers quit. 

Non-evidence-based policymaking and misinformation are considered some of the biggest obstacles to cutting tobacco smoking-related deaths and disease in the coming years by adoption of innovative tobacco harm reduction strategies, a message that was repeatedly driven home by international experts at the recent Global Tobacco Nicotine Forum (GTNF) in London. 

Speakers from all over the globe, including two African physicians Dr Delon Human and Dr Kgosi Letlape, called on governments to lead with science in the fight against tobacco, much like they have with the use of vaccines in the battle against Covid-19, which are not 100 per cent risk-free but help to prevent serious illness.  

Unfortunately, in Kenya, the push to put out the smokers’ light is not on track. Despite having an active tobacco-control programme, our smoking rates remain stubbornly high, with the same study by the Ministry of Health showing that approximately three million people continue to smoke tobacco every day. 

By comparison, the countries that are having the biggest success in reducing smoking rates are doing so by focusing on innovative harm-reduction interventions and actively helping smokers to quit using science-backed alternatives. In 2018, The Ministry of Health spearheaded harm reduction interventions as part of the larger Universal Health Care (UHC) agenda by hosting the Eastern Africa Harm Reduction Conference. However, there is a slow adoption of readily available less harmful alternatives, such as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches. 

In order to reduce smoking-rates in our country and reap the public health benefits of this new science, we need to reformulate our approach to tobacco control and embrace newer and more effective harm reduction interventions in a non-discriminatory manner. 

During the recently concluded GTNF, David Sweanor, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, warned that we need “to move away from the moralistic approach that aims to ban nicotine”, describing the belief that we can create a nicotine-free or tobacco-free society in the short term as “nonsensical”. 

Instead, we need to focus on pragmatic policies and tools that help smokers to avoid dying or becoming sick as a result of their addiction to tobacco.

To do otherwise is to abandon Kenya’s three million smokers, many of whom are desperately struggling to quit. 

Kenya needs to adopt evidence-based strategies that have been scientifically proven to reduce harm associated with tobacco smoking. 

Public health associations in countries such as the US, France, New Zealand and Canada have taken a progressive approach to new nicotine products and have seen their smoking rates fall at twice as fast as the global rates. Bringing Kenya in line with the world leaders in tobacco control is going to require a significant tactical change.

-Dr Kariuki is a doctor and public health specialist.