The ‘harm reduction trio’ peddle a harmful message

14 September 2019

The harm reduction trio are making their circuit in Asia speaking on dangers of smoking, while building support for ‘safer alternatives to smoking’ products. Their mission is to reverse the ban on e-cigarette and heated tobacco products in countries like Thailand, Singapore and India, while halting their ban in Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and other Asian countries.

The harm reduction trio are:

1.       Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos Cardiologist & researcher at Onassis, Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center, University of Patras, Greece. For some of the studies, the institution has received funding from e-cigarette companies. University of Patras is a grantee of the PMI funded FSFW.
2.       Dr. Marewa Glover Director, Centre of Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty & Smoking in New Zealand, sponsored by PMI funded FSFW.
3.       Prof. David Sweanor JD Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Canada; regular speaker at the Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN), organised by KAC Communications, which is sponsored by PMI funded FSFW.

Nicotine, an addictive substance, is present in both conventional cigarettes and these new products. According to WHO, tobacco use in any form is harmful. The concept of ‘harm reduction’ appears more of ‘harm replacement’ as the trio are promoting switching from one addictive product to another.

Recently the trio gathered in Korea at the Third Asia Harm Reduction Forum where they promoted “electronic cigarettes and vaping devices as reducing harm from tobacco”. Their statements were widely reported in newspaper in MalaysiaThailandPhilippines other Asian countries. 

The press coverage on the Third Harm Reduction Forum ranged from “safer alternatives” in Thailand to a misleading “E-cigarettes touted as potential healthier alternative for smokers” in Malaysia. But the message to Asian policy makers was resounding harm replacement – promote switching or lose more lives to cigarettes.

The group’s message to the Philippines government was that they “should recognize vaping is dramatically safer than cigarettes and has helped millions quit smoking.” Recently the Philippines Food and Development Authority (FDA) issued an Administrative Order 2019-0007 regulating e-cigarettes imposing labelling requirements on the product, and the licensing the manufacturing and sales.

The Asia Harm Reduction Forum is an annual travelling road-show sponsored by the harm reduction supporters. In the past they held the forum in Indonesia and Philippines. The purpose of this Forum is to persuade governments to reverse any restrictive policy or prevent bans from being put in place. See previous Tobacco Watch update.

Joining these Western trio are Asian counterparts including Achmad Sy (Indonesia), Tikki Pangetsu (Singapore), Okryun Moon (Korea), and Chung Hin Willy Wong (Hong Kong).

Background checks on the trio reveal their industry links, directly or indirectly. While Farsalinos and Glover’s institutions have links to the PMI funded Foundation for Smoke-Free World, Sweanor merely appears as a speaker on fora funded by the tobacco industry.

Against this crass promotion of harm reduction, recently there has been a spate of reports on deaths believed to be related to vaping in the US. The  Federal health officials announced  that vaping could be the cause of at least 450 possible cases of severe lung disease with five confirmed deaths in 33 states. One in five high school students used e-cigarettes in 2018, an increase of 78 percent over 2017. 

Following this worrying news, several governments have issued health warnings on e-cigarettes:

  1. Philippines : FDA asks hospitals to report injuries, illnesses related to e-cigarette
    https://technology.inquirer.net/90546/fda-asks-hospitals-to-report-injuries-illnesses-related-to-e-cigarette
  2. Hong Kong: The Department of Health has issued a Health Alert, 9 September 2019
  3. Alberta, Canada: Health Services issued an advisory- Severe Pulmonary Disease Associated with E-Cigarette Use; Surveillance and Notification; https://postmediaedmontonjournal2.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/if-hp-phys-moh-cz-vaping-pulmonary.pdf

Juul Labs Inc., which sells flavoured vaping products that look like flash drives, is facing negative publicity and crackdowns in the U.S. However, it is targeting Asia and has begun selling its vaping devices recently in South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines, and is looking into entering more markets in the region.

This is reminiscent of how the conventional cigarettes business went many decades ago – as awareness of the harms and deaths of smoking became evident and prevalence decreased in developed countries, the tobacco companies focused on increasing sales in Asia. Sales of new tobacco and nicotine products are following this same pathway.

According to Bloomberg news, Juuls reported, “We view Asia as a high-priority region for the company. What we see is that smokers are very interested in these products. The consumer demand is super high.”

Brunei, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Singapore and Thailand have done the right thing in banning e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Other Asian governments should follow suit, prevent a new epidemic among teens and ban these new products that are creating more problems.

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