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Minority voices; the voice of smokers

By Martha Mwase and Chimwemwe Ngoma

In the modern day, a participatory approach to development is said to be the most effective pathway to achieving sustainable development. Unlike the top – bottom approach where interventions are imposed on people, participatory approach considers people’s active participation right from problem identification to implementation of the derived solutions. In a participatory approach, the interventions are likely to be effective and sustainable.

For so long in our society, people who smoke tobacco have been viewed with a negative lens and are labeled as immoral and outcasts. Because of their tainted image, smokers are often times not involved when decision and interventions that directly affects them are being made. Lack of their voice in such interventions is not only a threat to their rights but also undermines the effectiveness and sustainability of the interventions. However, the allure of hope is that in this democratic era, there are consumer groups that defend and sensitize others on the rights of consumers, smokers inclusive.

Besides that, you can agree with me that nicotine is widely demonized. This is because there is a mistaken belief that nicotine causes diseases like lung cancer, hypertension and heart disease. However, there is no scientific study conducted anywhere in the world that has proven the mistaken dogma. In fact, there is no known disease that is caused by nicotine consumption. Nicotine actually reduces symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and autism.

People smoke for the nicotine because it is addictive but they are harmed by the hundreds of toxic chemical substances that are found in burning tobacco leaves. Like the famous scientist and innovator, Michael Russel once said, “people smoke for nicotine but they are harmed by the tar”.

In the world of technology and novelty, various innovations have been developed that help to deliver nicotine in a less harmful format, an example of such an innovation is an electronic cigarette. According to the Public Health England, electronic cigarettes are 95% safer as compared to smoking. In practicality, such innovations have helped some smokers who were unable or unwilling to give up on smoking to switch to safer means of consuming nicotine.

So, if there is an innovation that decouples nicotine from tobacco smoke, should we not adopt it to help current smokers quit smoking? And if there are innovations underway that are scientifically proven to deliver nicotine in a less harmful format as compared to combustible tobacco, should we not encourage such innovations?

On another note, banning tobacco has proven to be politically impossible, Bhutan is the only country in the world that has completely banned any tobacco sales but this is widely ignored because there in little administrative and judicial structures to enforce legislation. Besides, bans worsen situations because it drives people to illicit markets where the products can be even more harmful. In this case, a safer alternative to combustible tobacco is the most practical get away from smoking.

In an all-inclusive society, it would be absurd for any health body or country to create interventions on smoking without incorporating the perspective of the smokers and consumer groups, as the saying goes ‘there is nothing about us without us’. All inclusive and science-based policies on tobacco smoking and nicotine consumption is likely to uphold public health and protect human rights.

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