Kenyan and other African medics have issued a call through the African Harm Reduction Alliance (AHRA) to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to save millions of cigarette smokers by supporting safer alternatives.

The call by the medics comes as the number of cigarette smokers continues to surge in Kenya and Africa, according to the Tobacco Atlas.

In 2017, smoking was identified as the country’s leading cause of preventable deaths by the Kenya Ministry of Health. According to the Atlas, over 8,000 deaths occur every year, with 18,000 children and 2.1 million adults using tobacco every day, generating healthcare and economic costs of almost Ksh. 3 billion a year. The country, however, has banned the safer alternatives that most smokers in developed countries have now moved to.

The Kenyan appeal comes in support of a letter written by 100 independent experts in tobacco and nicotine science and policy to delegates due to attend the WHO’s tobacco summit. The group has called on the WHO to modernize its approach to safer alternatives, such as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches. The group also advocated for the incorporation of effective tobacco harm reduction into the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

AHRA has written its own letter in support of the group, joining the call for delegates to the FCTC’s Ninth Conference of Parties (COP9) to adopt a questioning and assertive approach to WHO’s tobacco policies.

Speaking at a joint webinar with Campaign for Safer Alternatives, AHRA’s CEO, Dr Delon Human said, “Scientific evidence shows that vaping and nicotine pouches are much less harmful than cigarettes and they can offer smokers their best chance of quitting a lethal habit.

“Public health policies should acknowledge that these potential lifesavers would have a hugely positive impact in low- and middle-income countries, where 90% of deaths for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) occur.”

President of AHRA, Dr Kgosi Letlape, says: “AHRA is urging COP9 delegates and the WHO to pay particular consideration to the plight of Africa, where smoking rates are stagnating or increasing in defiance of global trends.

“Smokers on the continent are desperate for safer alternatives, which are being over-regulated or over-taxed out of their reach. The real issue is combustion of tobacco, which causes most of the harm. We need evidence-based decision-making and believe adoption of harm reduction policies and (non-combustible) products in Africa would help prevent 146,000 tobacco-related deaths every year.”