Open Mic

Photo: Malcom Griffiths

One of the panelists at the final session of the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum (GTNF) 2021, the Open Mic, indicated that he and his colleagues were spending a lot of time trying to validate innovative ways of substantiating tobacco harm reduction. He was responding to a question about whether breaking through to those so far unconvinced about the harm reduction credentials of new-generation tobacco/nicotine products would require more research or whether a different approach was needed. It was obvious that regulators would want to see the results of high-quality studies, he said, but what was not so obvious was what kinds of studies were needed. It was known, however, that if somebody stopped smoking tobacco, they benefited from a whole world of physical improvements that could be measured; the problem was how to measure those changes effectively and in a timely manner.

The Open Mic session lasted one-and-a-half hours and provided event participants with the opportunity to ask some challenging questions, one of which touched on the fact that in some tobacco markets, up to 35 percent of smokers are occasional or nondaily smokers, most of whom don’t use other nicotine products on days when they don’t smoke. Given this, what was the role of nicotine in moving people away from combustible products?

One response suggested that the issue of addiction or dependence was oversimplified, as though all smokers were the same and all were addicted, an idea that was not entirely true. There had been overexposure of the problem of addiction and dependence, especially in relation to young people, when, in fact, some people were able overnight and without withdrawal symptoms to quit a smoking habit that had lasted up to 40 years. It was time for the book of addiction and dependence to be rewritten.

Another panelist took the view that the issue of the spectrum that took in addiction, dependence and pleasure was complex, and focusing on it as if it were the main moral question that had to be grappled with was not helpful. Having such a focus was to miss the target. The target should be to reduce risk and to reduce disease. In fact, the important moral question was do physicians and members of the scientific medical community give smokers an additional option or not? Do they provide them with proper guidance on how to quit but give them the right to choose, or do they condone only the methods of which they approve?

Broadly speaking, the Open Mic session included three panelists from the world of science and healthcare and three from the world of business, one of whom appeared remotely from China. The session started, however, with a comment from one of its two moderators, who said the 2021 GTNF was the first conference she had been at where the consumer was front and center. But there was a sting in the tail. Some consumers, she added, those who still used traditional tobacco products, were not at the center except in the sense that they were the subject of discussions on how to get them to move to one of the many new-generation products coming onto the market. In a way, the suggestion seemed to be: Where was the “T” in GTNF?

A corollary to this question came up later when it was asked whether committed traditional tobacco users should be continually bombarded with information by those wanting them to quit or switch to less risky products or whether, at some point, it should be accepted that since they were determined to continue with their habit, they should be left alone to enjoy it. Nobody got to grips with this question, perhaps because it was too raw or because this “hard core” of smokers would make up the 5 percent who would still exist in countries that had “eliminated” smoking. Although one panelist made the point that in a relatively free world, people should be allowed to do what they wanted to do with a legal product, most merely suggested that new-generation products and the messages around them should be improved, presumably until even the hard core of smokers came on board.

There is clearly a problem with such communications, however. One simple but insightful question asked where a smoker looking to quit should go for advice. This presents a conundrum because the tobacco/nicotine and pharmaceutical industries have financial interests in the outcome, many healthcare professionals are ill-informed and social media is crawling with conspiracy theories. One panelist made the point that it could turn out that your friend who had already benefited from switching from consuming traditional tobacco products to using new-generation products could prove to be the most important medical adviser you would ever consult.