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Monday, February 26, 2024

‘Dirty Ashtray’: Award or insult?

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It is only through innovation and scientific approach that we can collectively address the global smoking problem

An international coalition of non-government organizations risks losing its credibility by honoring countries where smoking is free for all, while discrediting nations that regulate cigarette alternatives to help smokers quit and eliminate the black market.

The Global Alliance on Tobacco Control (GATC), a leading civil society advocate for the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, administers the ‘Dirty Ashtray’ awards—or more appropriately, insults—given to WHO FCTC member countries that support and adopt harm reduction strategies in tobacco control during the Conference of Parties, like the Philippines.

The 10th COP meeting is underway in Panama City and will conclude on Feb 10.

The Philippines has been a recipient of the Dirty Ashtray several times for regulating cigarette alternatives, and rejecting the prohibitionist stance of WHO FCTC in tobacco control.

In 2022, the Philippines became the first Southeast Asian country to enact comprehensive and risk-proportionate vape regulations, covering electronic cigarettes, heated tobacco and other smoke-free products for adult consumers.

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These products, per numerous scientific studies, have been found to be at least 95 percent less harmful than traditional cigarettes due to the absence of burning and, consequently, smoke.

While the GATC may have noble intentions to end the smoking epidemic, it loses focus by engaging in moral debates on the appropriateness of alternatives to cigarettes.

Instead of fostering unity to assist smokers, the group alienates them and demonizes all novel tobacco products despite the results of voluminous scientific research showing they are in fact far less harmful than cigarettes.

For the GATC, all these products and cigarettes are the same for containing nicotine, which is actually a food-grade substance that also naturally occurs in tomato, pepper and potato, aside from tobacco.

Both GATC and the WHO FCTC refuse to acknowledge the merits of harm reduction, a scientific approach that helps individuals minimize risks from an activity.

Harm reduction practices include the use of vaccines to protect against viruses or masks to mitigate pollution.

In the case of smoking, tobacco harm reduction involves less harmful alternatives, primarily electronic delivery products like vapes, heated tobacco and oral nicotine products.

At the 10th COP meeting, the GATC is yet again resorting to public shaming, targeting the novel tobacco product industry.

The FCTC, formed in 2005 to reduce tobacco product use, has faced challenges due to its universal approach to control strategies across all countries without including THR strategies.

While the WHO FCTC shifts its focus to discredit and eliminate smoke-free products, over 8 million smokers die each year from smoking-related diseases, primarily in lower- or middle-income countries, including those heavily influenced by the WHO FCTC.

In countries where its influence has waned, such as the UK, Japan or Sweden, less harmful alternatives have mainly replaced cigarettes, reducing smoking-related deaths.

In the UK, the government planned to provide vaping starter kits to over 1 million smokers to eliminate cost barriers to transitioning from combustible cigarettes to reduced-risk e-cigarettes.

In Japan, smoking rates decreased from 33 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2020, because of higher taxes, public smoking bans and the introduction of heated tobacco.

Despite Japan’s successes, the GATC gave the country the highest number of “Dirty Ashtray” awards during the previous COP meetings.

The GATC appears to have lost its original purpose, engaging in endless debates against innovation, while the global smoking problem persists.

As the GATC rewards countries with rising smoking rates and criticizes those achieving significant harm reduction gains, questions arise about the organization losing its direction.

Primarily composed of public health officials, the GATC opts for ideological disputes, leaving smokers with limited options and feeling helpless.

Fortunately, there are countries such as the Philippines willing to defy the WHO FCTC’s dictates and risk their reputation if only to help save smokers. These countries are the ones that truly deserve respect and acclaim.

If the WHO FCTC and its allies like GATC really intend to have a smoke-free future, it is crucial for them to reassess their strategies, prioritize unity and work with countries leading the way in harm reduction.

It is only through innovation and scientific approach that we can collectively address the global smoking problem and offer smokers the support and options they need to make healthier choices.

It should not be about awards or insults, but about saving smokers.

(Email: ernhil@yahoo.com)

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