According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco kills more than 8 million people worldwide each year, and is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced. But contrary to popular belief that smokers are “uneducated regarding it’s harmful effects”, or are simply “not bothered to make an effort to quit”, studies have shown that 70% to 80% of smokers do hope to quit smoking. The only thing holding them back is that they can’t.
Nicotine is widely known to be a highly addictive substance. It is the chemical in tobacco that makes it hard to quit and nicotine withdrawal symptoms that smokers experience can be extremely unpleasant physically and mentally. Apart from the intense craving for nicotine, withdrawal symptoms may also include sweating, increased irritability, difficulty in concentrating, as well as difficulty in sleeping. However, nicotine dependence is causing the compulsion to smoke, it is other chemical substances that cause physical damage to the body. Chemicals such as tar can paralyse the hair-like structures in the lungs (also known as the cilia), contributing to diseases such as chronic bronchitis. Moreover, smokers are also vulnerable to the development of lung cancer. Cigarette smoke contains a cancer-causing substance, benzopyrene, which can attack and damage the p53 gene. When the tumour-suppressor gene is damaged, cancer cells have a higher chance of proliferating due to uncontrolled cell division, hence increasing the risk of tumour growth.
Ideally, quitting smoking and nicotine completely would be the best, but it’s proven to be tough for addicted cigarette smokers to stop all at once. As such, a harm reduction strategy would be switching to a less harmful nicotine alternative for smokers, and ideally would result in them ultimately quitting nicotine use altogether. This is all about lowering the health risks to individuals and wider society associated with tobacco smoking. Some of the more commonly known alternatives include electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products (also known as heat-not-burn or HnB). Although these may not be accessible in Singapore, other countries have legalised these smoke-free nicotine products that generally deliver far lower levels of toxic compounds.
E-cigarettes are battery-operated electronic devices that mimic the act of regular smoking by heating a liquid to generate an aerosol, which is inhaled by users through the mouthpiece and exhaled as a visible vapour. Often, the usage of e-cigarettes is also known as “vaping”. Not to be confused with e-cigarettes, HnBs work in a different manner. In some way, HnBs are a hybrid of traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes. In HnBs, the tobacco is heated to 350℃, compared to traditional cigarettes that combust and burn at a temperature of up to 900℃. On the other hand, e-cigarettes heat nicotine-containing liquid to approximately 250℃, causing it to be vapourised and then inhaled.
Although not risk-free, what makes e-cigarettes and HnBs a better option compared to conventional, combustible cigarettes? Cigarette smoke is pretty much the main cause of harm, with thousands of toxins released in high concentrations upon the combustion of tobacco. Unlike traditional cigarettes, its alternatives are smoke-free – this means that smoke-induced health effects are significantly reduced. When smokers make the switch to using e-cigarettes or HnBs, these devices also have the added advantage of replicating the ever so familiar hand-to-mouth ritual of smoking. However, it is crucial to note that both e-cigarettes and HnBs still contain nicotine, so while smoke-induced health effects are reduced, the effects of nicotine consumption is still prevalent, for as long as these products are used.
It must be acknowledged that many health professionals, tobacco-use control professionals and policy-makers who recommend the harm reduction alternatives have very good intentions. They advocate reduction in conventional cigarette smoking as a pragmatic way of reducing the devastating health effects associated with nicotine dependency. However, good intentions must always be supported by strong evidence.
This year, the Asia Pacific Behavioural and Addiction Medicine Conference (APBAM 2020) will be a socially distanced online conference. Focusing on “Tobacco Harm Reduction – Myths and Reality” for it’s first forum, the speakers will examine the use of new ways to overcome nicotine dependence, as well as the various policies that different countries have taken in their approaches and their effects on reducing the harms caused by cigarette smoking. Speakers will include Prof Alex Wodak (AUS), Dr. Jeremy Lim (SG), Dr. Takao Ohki (JP), Dr. Rusdi bin Abd Rashid (MY), Dr. Ben Cheung (HK), Dr. Munidasa Winslow (SG), Andrew da Roza (SG) & Dr Sivakumar Thurairajasingam. Do join us on 26th September 2020, we hope to see you there!
https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tobacco (Accessed 06/09/2020)
https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/about-e-cigarettes.html (Accessed 07/09/2020)
https://www.athra.org.au/what-is-tobacco-harm-reduction/ (Accessed 07/09/2020)