Hong Kong government urged to rethink anti-smoking policies

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Innovative products that offers possibly less harmful alternatives for smokers should be embraced and regulated.

Creative destruction is an essential part of capitalism and governments should not treat any innovations to transform the tobacco market with immediate hostility, industry and health experts argue.

On Christmas eve the acting Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan has vowed to go ahead with a plan to enlarge warning signs on cigarette packages from covering 50% of the surface to 85%, claiming that the proposal is already “already a balancing act” despite concerns from the industry.

Chan, meanwhile, also stated that the government would step up measures on e-cigarette control, noting worries over possible cancer-causing substances and e-cigarettes being a potential gateway to smoking.

Dr Stephen Jenkins, director in regulatory and medical affairs of Nicoventures in the Asia-Pacific region, has renewed his call for e-cigarette regulations instead of a complete ban in his recent visit to Hong Kong.

Advocates of e-cigarettes – or ‘vaping’ – have been recommending the use of e-cigarettes as a much less harmful alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes. Recent developments across the globe are also moving in favour of regulating e-cigarettes, with the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) parties acknowledging regulation as a possible path at the seventh session of the Conference of the Parties (COP7) last month in India.

“E-cigarettes clearly have significant evidence based around them and have undergone significant public health scrutiny,” Dr Jenkins said. “Canada and New Zealand are moving towards regulating e-cigarettes, and Vietnam is considering it. These are governments that have had a very strong position [on e-cigarettes] for many years. But the evidence is compelling and they are considering it.”

During the stay he has met with lawmakers from political parties across the spectrum and visited several local e-cigarette vendors. “Reception of me here in Hong Kong has been open but healthily sceptical as they should be,” he added.


Creative destruction of tobacco industry

As huge a controversy – or a public health breakthrough as advocates would say – e-cigarettes have generated, it does not represent the entire share of new generation nicotine delivery products. In fact, big tobacco companies such as Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco (of which Nicoventures is its research arm) and Japan Tobacco are competing primarily in Japan on the heat-not-burn front.

The concept behind heat-not-burn is that while it still uses traditional tobacco cigarettes, the cigarettes are heated up by an electronic device to produce inhalable vapour to avoid burning them which is generally agreed to be the source of most major toxic chemicals when smoking. By avoiding combustion, it is argued that these new generation products such as PMI’s IQOS, BAT’s Glo and Japan Tobacco’s Ploom can become another safer substitute to traditional cigarettes.

The big companies have been throwing in hundreds of millions of USD each year into R&D. A rather small sum compared to the USD770 billion global cigarette market, but the fact that these companies are embracing new market trends with innovations should be acknowledged.

“This is a time of change. There are lots of new products coming along with lots of emerging science. That’s why it is important to stay current with the science and the evidence so that governments can make the right choice,” Dr Jenkins asserted. “Smokers are looking for alternatives, and they make the choice themselves.”

Speaking at TEDxHongKong earlier this month, David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at University of Ottawa and a vocal proponent of new generation products, compared fear towards the products to demonisation of immunisation by anti-vaccines.

“Science is telling us that the real problem here is the smoke. What could we do if we decide to supercharge the idea of alternative nicotine, acknowledge there is a lot of people who are not going to be able to totally quit any time soon? What could we do if we give an encouragement through regulatory interventions, so that less addictive products became more readily available?” Prof Sweanor said.

“Companies are trying to move into this area because they have to. You either innovate when you got disruptive technology or you got blown away by it unless you are protected by regulators or by, in this case, anti-smoking groups, who prevent the alternative products coming out and by doing so they protect the cigarettes,” the professor contended. “The first jurisdictions that get it right have the potential of creating an enormous business by being able to then export that technology worldwide. So this is an opportunity where some people can make billions of dollars saving billions of lives.”