Picture: 123RF/GINA SANDERS
Picture: 123RF/GINA SANDERS

The National Council Against Smoking (NCAS) makes false assertions about our “Unsmoke” campaign and risks misleading SA’s 10-million smokers (Philip Morris in breach of SA’s tobacco law with sponsored campaign, February 12).

To misrepresent the purpose of the campaign and the information it imparts is disingenuous.

The campaign does not violate the Tobacco Products Control Act and does not assert that smoke-free alternatives are safe. In addition, it does not mention or reference any specific product brands. The campaign message is crystal clear: If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t quit, change.

We note the authors’ support of the first two points — that people shouldn’t smoke and that the best choice for those who do is to quit tobacco and nicotine altogether. The final point is where we disagree. It is about harm reduction for those smokers who would otherwise continue to smoke. It is about replacing products that are known to be harmful with products that are scientifically substantiated to be less harmful than continued smoking. Less harmful does not mean risk-free. 

Just look at the impact in Japan, where researchers from the American Cancer Society found that the introduction of heated-tobacco products likely reduced cigarette sales there. Adult smokers who would otherwise continue smoking deserve access to and information about these less harmful alternatives and the campaign calls out the need for them to have it. This is surely more sensible than keeping them in the dark. 

This is in the spirit of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) framework convention on tobacco control article 1(d), which states that “tobacco control” means a range of supply, demand and harm-reduction strategies that aim to improve the health of a population by eliminating or reducing their consumption of tobacco products and exposure to tobacco smoke”. 

In a separate article, one of the authors of the opinion piece stated that “England has the most comprehensive smoking cessation programmes in the world in place, with significant steps having been taken to ensure that smokers receive the institutional support required.” What the author does not say is that these smoking cessation programmes adopt a tobacco harm-reduction approach that specifically includes the support and introduction of less harmful alternatives.

Why is harm reduction as a key pillar of tobacco control being ignored? There are now more than 3-million consumers of e-cigarettes in the UK. That government’s Tobacco Control Plan for England (published in 2017) states: “The best thing a smoker can do for their health is to quit smoking. However, the evidence is increasingly clear that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to health than smoking tobacco. The government will seek to support consumers in stopping smoking and adopting the use of less harmful nicotine products.”

SA would benefit from a similar stance. Unfortunately, some allow emotion, politics or ideology to dictate their actions. They ignore the interests of smokers. They ignore the significant scientific developments in the field. They ignore the potential of less harmful products as a viable alternative to cigarettes, that could supplement existing smoking cessation and prevention measures.

Misinformation benefits no-one. Indeed, it could lead to smokers continuing to smoke. We are, rightly, held to the highest levels of scrutiny. Others should be too. The interests of SA’s smokers should come first, and we will continue to seek and engage in reasoned and reasonable debate, based on science and facts. We hope that others, including the authors, will join us.

Marcelo Nico
MD, Philip Morris SA

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