The crisis in Ukraine offers an opportunity to transform tobacco use across eastern and central Europe.
By Derek Yach
Vladimir Vorotnikov, writing in Tobacco Reporter’s August 2022 issue, outlined how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended well-established supply chain and business relationships that have been in effect for decades. In fact, a careful read of Balkan Smoke by Mary C. Neuberger traces the roots of these relationships way back to Bulgaria in the 1920s. Vorotnikov discussed the impact of sanctions on Russian tobacco production, the emergence of illicit trade in the region, and more recently, the reestablishment of cigarette production in Ukraine.
He does not discuss the massive growth over the past few years in new reduced-risk nicotine products—led by IQOS—across eastern and central Europe. The editor makes the point that Russia is (was) one the largest markets for IQOS. My own observations during a visit to Kyiv in late October 2021 were that a range of vape products and heated-tobacco products were readily available across the city despite posters funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies near the Parliament proclaiming that they were dangerous.
This is a time of profound transition for the region. Amid the horrors of war and the human tragedies it continues to bring to the people of Ukraine are opportunities to reduce future deaths from the single largest cause of premature death in the region—and especially among men—combustible tobacco products. As rebuilding begins—as it inevitably will—government, business and health professionals need to grasp the chance to avoid rebuilding the tobacco industry in the image of the past and rather take the high ground of health and make reduced-risk products the easily available option while phasing out combustible sales.
For governments, this means adopting risk-proportionate regulations that build on the approaches proposed by the recent Javed Khan report for the United Kingdom, and on the authorizations of a range of reduced-risk products by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Ukraine and the neighboring countries relied on FDA guidance in relation to Covid vaccine advice—now is the time to draw upon their guidance to accelerate access to reduced-risk products, citing the FDA’s comments that they are deemed “appropriate for the protection of public health.”
Tax and other regulatory approaches could be applied to accelerate the transition. Further, governments of the region need to step up investments in customs and excise oversight to stop large-scale illicit trade taking hold—as it has in the occupied territories of Georgia following Russian invasion in 2008.
The Russian government also has an obligation to protect the health of its people and take regulatory steps to ensure that the progress made by Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International and BAT is increasing their revenue from heated-tobacco products at the cost of combustibles. Slippage with regard to these gains will translate into a return to the very high smoking rates, and associated death rates, of the past.
Government actions will be limited, though, unless the three leading tobacco companies (PMI, JTI and BAT) active in the region commit to take concerted efforts to accelerate their transition out of combustibles and publicly clarify what “withdrawing from Russia” means. Are they continuing to profit from Russian cigarette sales albeit through local companies? Are those companies obliged to push ahead with reduced-risk products, or will they revert to cigarettes?
Outside of Russia, leading tobacco companies could communicate the benefits of switching, take measures to clamp down on illicit trade and tighten youth access to all nicotine products, through joint action. Such bold actions would give them a chance to show their seriousness to transformation—something investors should reward.
United Nations agencies have a role to play at this time. Evidence emerging from inside Ukraine suggests that smoking rates have increased among those in the military and possibly among displaced peoples. This is understandable given the unprecedented stress to which people are exposed. The current U.N. response has been to ignore this reality and simply continue to support policies that ban cigarette sales during conflicts—something that is probably ignored. A far better way forward is to support people who smoke or seek nicotine to have ready access to nicotine-replacement products and approved reduced-risk nicotine products. This would mean that a generation of people may well emerge from the war with lower overall risks to their health.
War and tobacco use are intimately linked and currently interacting in dangerous ways to the health of populations. We should not wait for the transition to peace and health to begin before taking steps to accelerate the transition of smokers away from combustibles.