Governments stub out moves to introduce cigarette alternatives in Asia

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No health issue has the capacity to divide public opinions more than smoking, writes Casandra Wong for Yahoo News Singapore. Governments in Asia have been slow to investigate alternative cigarette products, probably due to conservative approaches and close ties with the tobacco industry.

Even as countries around the world introduce more measures to curb the unhealthy habit, industry players, experts and consumers are calling on authorities to hold discussions and work towards substituting regular tobacco products with purportedly less harmful options such as e-cigarettes.

For one, governments in Asia are largely averse to having such discussions as the debate over the issue remains “polarised and emotional”, said Professor Tikki Pangestu, a visiting professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and an expert in public health policies.

The former Director in Research Policy & Cooperation department of World Health Organization observed these governments, such as those in Australia, India, and Singapore, remain conservative in their attitude towards alternative cigarette products or imitation and emerging tobacco products, while the UK and other European countries adopt a more liberal approach.

Another key factor that accounts for the inertia among some regional authorities to warm up to alternative products is their close ties with major players in the tobacco industry, such as those in Indonesia and China, Professor Tikki added.

Nancy Sutthoff, Asia-Pacific regional coordinator for International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO), an umbrella group lobbying for harm reduction from smoking, agrees, “In Asia, you have got governments that have very big investments, if not, complete oversight of the actual tobacco industry. Whereas in the West, the tobacco companies are separate entities from the government.”

INNCO’s seven Asia-Pacific member groups met up in Bangkok in December last year, resulting in a manifesto that stressed on harm reduction policies as a human right in the region.

Unlike countries in other regions that have been targeting their efforts on curbing the supply of tobacco with a “quit or die” mindset, countries in the West have been gradually transitioning to incorporating harm reduction policies in their fight towards a smoke-free world, added Sutthoff.

Are alternative cigarette products safer?

Besides e-cigarettes, which work by heating a flavoured liquid mixed with nicotine to generate a vapour, industry players have also touted snus, a moist powdered tobacco, and “heat-not-burn” tobacco products as “safer” alternatives to cigarettes.

A 2015 UK government-backed Public Health England study, cited often by vaping supporters, declared e-cigarettes to be around 95 per cent safer than their traditional counterparts and can help smokers to quit.

But US national public health institute Centres for Disease Control and Prevention warned that e-cigarette aerosol is not “harmless water vapour” as it contains harmful substances like cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals such as nickel, tin, and lead.

“Heat-not-burn” products – as the name implies – heat up tobacco leaves up to 350°C, producing a vapour, as opposed to the burning of tobacco in cigarettes at around 900°C.

The vapour contains on average 90 per cent less toxic chemicals than cigarette smoke, according to Marlboro maker Philip Morris International (PMI), which this month launched two new tobacco-heating products under the IQOS line. However, the WHO has said there is “no evidence to demonstrate” that these products are less harmful than conventional tobacco counterparts.

“Our ambition is to replace cigarettes with better (alternatives) for people who smoke and the people around them. If we are successful…one day we will stop selling cigarettes,” said PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos in a press conference held in Tokyo in October to announce the company’s new IQOS 3 and IQOS 3 MULTI.

Move to introduce cigarette alternatives in Asia stubbed out by government resistance

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