This will be my last blog of 2018. In 2019, I enter year 40 of working in the drugs field, currently as Director of DrugWise, an online drug information service, and as a member of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the Secretariat of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prescribed Drug Dependence. The drugs work continues, but little did I know when the charity I worked for, DrugScope, fell over in 2015, that 2019 would also be the year when I would be part of a team taking the message of tobacco harm reduction across the world.
I have spent the past year working with an exemplary group of people to produce the first Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction report. The report was launched in Geneva in October, receiving its highly successful UK premiere at the Houses of Parliament on 18th December. But next year the team hits the road hopefully starting in Australia and Africa in March and to other far flung destinations to help support the efforts of consumer advocates and sympathetic academics, clinicians and politicians as they make the irrefutable case against legislating safer nicotine products out of existence in the tragically mistaken belief that somehow this would be any sort of victory for public health.
Having spent years advocating for drug harm reduction and seeing the progress made, even though there is so much more to do – it was like taking a step back in time when I first became involved in tobacco harm reduction in 2016. Here again were the entrenched morally-driven views, the wilful disregard of independent evidence, government and organisational lies and propaganda and sensational media reporting. What I wasn’t expecting were the banshee howlers braying that anybody involved in tobacco harm reduction was just a lackey of Big Tobacco while – I hasten to add – taking sizeable wodges of cash from governments and philanthropic bodies to produce anti-tobacco harm reduction ‘evidence’ so full of holes that the makers of Emmental cheese could probably sue.
None of that has gone away and if anything has worsened as the nabobs of international tobacco control continue to urge ever more stringent laws on safer nicotine products, ensuring more death and disease among smokers looking to switch away from cigarettes while continuing to enjoy nicotine. I suspect there is a growing fear that where mainstream tobacco controls have been reasonably effective in bringing down smoking prevalence in Western-style liberal democracies, the dipping curves are beginning to plateau out – Australian being one example – and these control efforts are stalling. But instead of looking at new ways to encourage the remaining millions of smokers away from combustible tobacco using the new technologies, more philanthropic money is about to be wasted setting up yet another body to expose the selling tactics of Big Tobacco, as if the long-standing strategies for maintaining cigarette profits were not already exhaustively documented. I don’t have a problem with that per se if it wasn’t for the inevitable collateral damage to efforts at promoting tobacco harm reduction and the use of safer nicotine products. They will get caught up in paroxysms of self-congratulatory declarations from this new outfit that all the work we are doing is simply a cloud of smoke and mirrors aimed at boosting cigarette sales. It would be great if that didn’t happen, but I’m not holding my breath even at the risk of passively inhaling bullshit.
Except there will be no passive inhaling of anything. There is a fight to be joined here – the very same fight undertaken by those advocating for drug harm reduction – in support of the right for all citizens to be given the means to take control of their own health. So the writing and launch of the GSTHR report are not the end – simply the end of the beginning as the team at Knowledge•Action•Change look forward to making whatever contribution we can to help millions of smokers worldwide to switch away from combustible tobacco. Meanwhile, seasons greeting to all.