LIFESTYLE
10/01/2018 12:45 SAST | Updated 10/01/2018 16:14 SAST

A Smoke-Free World Is Possible. Or Is It Really?

"Not all smokers want to quit," some say.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Smoking still remains the world's number-one cause of preventable deaths, killing more than 7-million people each year.

More than 6-million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use, while around 890,000 are the result of nonsmokers being exposed to second-hand smoke, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Over the past few decades, smoke-free environments have been created, bigger health warnings have been mandated, cigarettes have been made more expensive, and advertising and marketing have been restricted. Yet at least 1-billion people continue to smoke, and a similar number are projected to die prematurely from tobacco use by the end of this century.

"There is an urgent need to accelerate progress [on initiatives to] end this public health crisis," said Derek Yach, the founder of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

He shared the foundation's vision for a smoke-free world with HuffPost.

Is this world realistic and possible?

1. Not all smokers want to quit, some say. How do we balance tobacco control initiatives, including government intervention, with the autonomy of individuals who smoke knowing the effects of tobacco on their bodies?

We need to help people better understand the benefits of quitting or switching to reduced products by age. If you ask smokers at what age they think they should stop trying to quit, many in their 30s think it is too late. They believe they have been smoking for too long to make a difference. Yet the evidence tells us that if smokers quit at age 50, 55, 60, or 65, there are measurable material gains to longevity and quality of life.

Governments also need to look more critically at two aspects that could accelerate the ability of smokers to quit or switch to reduced risk products. The first relates to their role in clearly communicating that nicotine does not kill –– tar does. This may help the public understand that e-cigarettes, which do not contain tar and other harmful chemicals, are much safer than traditional cigarettes.

Secondly, governments should consider regulating products proportionate to their risk.

2. What about commercial interests of tobacco companies weighed against achieving public health objectives such "the lowest attainable level of smoking by 2050"?

As tobacco companies increasingly focus their future on profits from reduced-risk nicotine products (including snuff; e-cigarettes; heat-not-burn products and likely newer innovations) and less on combustible cigarettes, they will reduce the public-health impact of smoking substantially.

Independent research is needed to see if these products reduce exposure to the toxic aspects of smoking –– and do so in ways that do not addict a future generation of kids. Early results suggest this is indeed possible.

3. Until we (ideally) reach a smoke-free world, what's your opinion on e-cigarettes? Are they good for this objective?

There is no doubt that e-cigarettes serve the commercial interest of manufacturers. However, they also substantially reduce the risks of serious disease and premature death in smokers, because they do not contain tar and other harmful chemicals, and they increase the quit rate in smokers who switch.

Taken together, they are an example of what Michael Porter from Harvard Business School refers to as an example of a "shared value" business plan. Profits and better public health occur together.