• April 21, 2024

‘Forgotten’ Smokers

 ‘Forgotten’ Smokers
Photo: Chris Ferenzi

Rather than being “forgotten,” as the session’s title suggested, people who smoke are an unexplored, stigmatized and often misunderstood species, according to the participants in a GTNF discussion about consumers. While consumer centricity has become a buzzword in the reduced-risk product industry, companies still have a lot to learn about their target group.

Altria, whose vision is to responsibly lead the transition to a smoke-free future, examined the plight of consumers on their journey to less hazardous products. “We had done a comprehensive research program about the interest in vape products, but what was really missing was to bring the voice of the consumer directly to the organization,” said Brent Taylor, managing director of consumer and marketplace insights at Altria.

Last year, the company initiated “Project 21,” a study of 21 consumers of combustible tobacco who were interested in switching to less harmful nicotine products (see “Listening to Nicotine Users,Tobacco Reporter, September 2022). Over 21 days, Altria’s researchers catalogued the study participants’ behavior via videos and weekly surveys. The participants were asked to “do their best” but didn’t get any guidance, as Altria wanted to learn how they tackled the challenge on their own. Their progress was checked after three weeks, three months and six months.

After six months, 15 participants were still smoke-free. The people who were most successful were those who really wanted to switch and held themselves accountable. The project also showed that many factors unrelated to the product category, such as a bad day at work, impacted the success of participants in transitioning. Each of the journeys was unique and entailed its own set of complications. For all participants, it was a highly emotional experience, according to Altria.

Kim “Skip” Murray, a person who vapes and a tobacco harm reduction (THR) advocate who until last year ran a vape shop in Minnesota, related experiences from her customers that illustrate how external factors, such as misinformation and economic strain, can impact attempts at switching. One of her customers, a Vietnam veteran with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, returned to smoking for some months after press reports and health authorities mistakenly attributed the e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury (EVALI) outbreak to nicotine vapes.

Some clients reverted to more harmful but less expensive cigarettes when their budgets were tight. Discouragingly, the Food and Drug Administration’s marketing denial orders forced products off the market that had helped Murray’s customers quit cigarettes while leaving combustible products widely available. Murray said she was unable to dispel the myths about EVALI and many of the other false narratives about vaping. The number of people who came into her shop wanting to quit dropped substantially, eventually forcing her out of business.

Alex Clark, CEO of the Consumer Advocacy for Smoke-free Alternatives Association, stressed the importance of language in the smoking and health debate. “Smoker,” he said, has become a pejorative term. “We’re now focusing on people who have a history of being underprivileged, undeserved and oppressed—people who we don’t see in offices or at conferences; people who have been pushed to the margin of society.” Having smoked heavily in his youth, Clark recalled being told that his habit was a character flaw. The stigma of having no control over his decisions and essentially being a drug addict, Clark said, stuck with him even after he had switched to vaping.

Most of the 30 million Americans who smoke today belong to vulnerable groups, suffering, for instance, from mental illness or unemployment, according to health behavior consultant Cheryl K. Olson. Among people in custody, the percentage of people who smoke is four times higher across the world. Together with other researchers, Olson explored the potential of vape products for use in a prison environment and found that the acceptance was 95 percent. “For vulnerable groups, harm reduction is a realistic goal if nicotine abstinence is not,” she said. “Our findings about these groups have the potential to rebalance the conversation about appropriateness for the protection of public health.”

Will Godfrey, editor-in-chief of Filter and executive director of the Influence Foundation, bemoaned the lack of synergy between harm reduction for illegal drugs and harm reduction for tobacco.

Many illegal drug users smoke, and it would make sense to apply harm reduction strategies to both habits. In reality, those running drug-related programs are often unwilling to apply harm reduction to tobacco use. Bizarrely, some needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users are accompanied by anti-vaping policies, noted Godfrey.

He blamed the “deep suspicion” of the nicotine industry within the left-wing harm reduction movement as well as the growing influence of Bloomberg Philanthropies, a big funder of anti-smoking programs that is notoriously hostile to vapor products.

Godfrey urged the administrators of drug harm reduction programs to extend the harm reduction principle to smoking. “It is vital that THR, including the industry, builds momentum in this direction,” he said. “The hostility to the industry won’t go away but is surmountable, as the role of pharma in drug harm reduction has shown.”