By Everson Mushava
BALANCING economic and health interests has always been the world’s biggest nightmare, especially for tobacco producing countries that rely on the golden leaf for foreign export earnings.
For years, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been advocating for an end to cigarette smoking, citing adverse health complications.
WHO has pushed for the banning of tobacco marketing since the 1970s, claiming that over two million people die every year due to smoking, hence the need to limit consumers’ exposure to products that will encourage them to start smoking.
The gradual decline of the cigarette industry has put tobacco producing countries, including Zimbabwe where the industry contributes to 10% of its gross domestic product, in a quandary.
Zimbabwe is ranked the highest tobacco producer in Africa and sixth in the world after China, Brazil, India, the USA and Indonesia.
In 2018 alone, Zimbabwe contributed 25% of the produce in Africa and 2,8% of the global tobacco crop.
But science and innovation has brought fresh hope to the troubled sector, and relief to Zimbabwe and other countries where the tobacco industry’s future looked gloomy due to the growing global anti-tobacco lobby, which is imposing tighter regulations and heavy taxes on the golden leaf.
The tobacco industry has been working in the past decade on developing alternative products that will reduce the risk of smoking among them; Philip Morris International, an American tobacco giant, through scientific research, claims switching completely from conventional combustible cigarettes to risk-modified innovations significantly reduces one’s exposure to harmful chemicals.
The company has produced a heating tobacco system; IQOS unique in that it heats tobacco, but does not burn it. By heating tobacco in controlled temperatures, it significantly reduces the production of harmful chemicals produced through combustion.
The electronic IQOS device generates a nicotine-containing aerosol by heating tobacco-filled sticks wrapped in paper, specifically Marlboro Heatsticks, Marlboro Smooth Menthol Heatsticks and Marlboro Fresh Menthol Heatsticks, all brands by the American giant.
This was acknowledged by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) who in July gave Phillip Morris the greenlight to market its IQOS in the USA.
While Phillip Morris cannot claim that this product is safe, according to the FDA approval, other countries and public health organisations have supported its research and innovation.
“I am proud to be the first president of Reduced-Risk Products (RRPs) for Philip Morris International,”says PMI’s former president Miroslaw Zielinski in a message on the company’s scientific website.
“RRPs are products that have the potential to reduce the risk of smoking-related diseases, when compared to cigarettes.”
“In my view, there is no objective more important than the development of RRPs that are acceptable to the millions of adult smokers, who continue to smoke.
“Today, less harmful products that provide satisfaction and taste are no longer wishful thinking — advancements in science and technology have made them a concrete possibility.
“Adult smokers around the world have increasingly shown that they want alternatives to cigarettes.”
He added: “Regulators and public health advocates have concluded that less risky products can benefit public health and that switching can be achieved without undermining prevention and cessation, although those policies must be supported.”
Mitch Zeller, JD, director of the FDA’s Centre for Tobacco Products, said: “Data submitted by the company shows that marketing these particular products with the authorised information could help addicted adult smokers transition away from combusted cigarettes and reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals, but only if they completely switch.”
“I hope this illustrative experiment helps people see the huge damage caused by smoking that could be avoided by switching to an e-cigarette.”
Lion Shahab, from University College London, told The Guardian in December 2018 that: “The false belief that vaping is as harmful as smoking could be preventing thousands of smokers from switching to e-cigarettes to help them quit.”
Once again, new prospects for the growth of the tobacco industry have been born, bringing back smiles to countries like Zimbabwe where the golden leaf is the major source of export earnings.
Lands and Agriculture deputy minister Douglas Karoro said the government welcomes any innovation that would promote the health of its consumers, while at the same time growing the local tobacco industry suffering negative perception from health organisations.
“There has been psychological warfare for many years, with health organisations preaching against smoking, obviously at the danger to our tobacco industry as they advocated for the ever-dropping incidence of cigarette smoking.
“Innovations are ever advancing,” Karoro said.
“Of course, when innovations come, we are always guided by science through our experts.
“If it has benefits for the consumers, we will give it our full support.