Having been a smoker since high school, my first encounter with tobacco control was in pre-college where I was required to do a presentation outlining the dangers of smoking and the number of people killed by smoking related diseases. It was then that I realized just how bad the situation was, and how little was being done to curb the epidemic. I began to do some advocacy work independently, using my voice, and the collective voice of others, to bring about change. Soon enough after training, I was in tobacco control, and remained an advocate for 11 years, until recently.
The tobacco control movement through the FCTC has done a lot of positive in the fight against smoking. There have been advances in policy formulation on demand-reduction strategies for example the awareness programs, pictorial warnings, advertising bans and so forth. These measures have been successful to some degree, more people today are aware of the dangers of smoking than they were a decade ago. I think it’s a good thing that the industry has been held to account and more is being done to stop these avoidable deaths from smoking. My main reason for joining the tobacco control movement was to help smokers understand the dangers of smoking and quit!
Has the tobacco control movement worked though? I kept questioning myself on tobacco control for a while. Do the benefits of well-intended tobacco control policy reach the most affected (smokers)? Here in Africa we have constantly raised cigarette prices, created smoke-free environments, mandated pictorial warnings, banned advertising and restricted marketing. In spite our efforts, the number of people who smoke in Africa has been on a steady increase, as the number of deaths from smoking related diseases continues to rise every year. These were some of the issues I wrestled with, and as I began to ask questions and remain open minded to new approaches, due to a rigid attitude adopted by tobacco control funders and advocates, I got excommunicated! From the FCTC to CTFK and Bloomberg Philanthropies, nobody seems to be open minded. Going by the figures, increasing taxes and so forth does not seem to be working here in Africa. Nobody wants to involve smokers in the conversations, yet they are the most affected. Speak to any smoker and they will tell you, they know the dangers of smoking, but they still choose to. We haven’t fully involved cigarette smokers in the debate around policy formulation and implementation. Public health services in Africa are not tuned to best assist smokers looking to quit. Research has not answered the questions that are most relevant to helping us understand which advances and technological innovations can improve quit rates the fastest.
I discovered harm reduction along the way, tried it for myself & chose to run with it. I honestly believe if Governments in Africa chose to implement this approach that will cost them nothing, we see a drastic decrease in the number of smokers. It is a simple, common sense approach. Not that I am against tobacco control, in fact I would have loved if the FCTC publicly endorsed this approach, unfortunately for reasons unknown to myself, this has not been the case. If we really believe that millions of people will continue to die from smoking related diseases (seeing as cigarettes are going nowhere), we need to rethink our approach to tobacco control. It is imperative we push ourselves to discover innovative, new methods to save the lives of people who would otherwise be killed by smoking.
I still remain passionate in my fight against smoking. In my world, you don’t get to call yourself “pro-life” and be against common-sense approaches such as harm reduction. If advocating for safer alternatives to be made available to smokers gives us a bad name, then so be it. We must learn that when people devalue any one Life, they devalue all life.