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Comment: The path to end smoking begins with an alternative choice

A commentary by the director of external affairs for Rothmans Benson & Hedges.

We commend the Times Colonist for its editorial examining and revisiting the need to reduce cigarette consumption and to make Canada smoke-free faster.

At Rothmans, Bensons & Hedges Inc., we wholeheartedly agree that cigarette consumption demands a response. It may sound surprising, but we want to eliminate cigarettes in Canada and for many years we have been committed to a smoke-free future.

To get there, it’s not as simple as stopping the sale of cigarettes. The contraband market, which is growing in places such as British Columbia, would still exist and likely thrive, which would flood the market with cheap cigarettes that have no quality control and no tax disincentives for consumers.

The key to helping the millions of existing smokers quit: choice. Yes, smokers should quit entirely and those who don’t smoke should never start. But there needs to be a third way: a supportive regulatory framework in place to help those that won’t quit find and switch to alternatives.

Scientific breakthroughs are now offering adult smokers who are not yet ready or do not want to quit nicotine products better alternatives such as vaping or heated tobacco products.

We know that vaping or heated tobacco products are not without risk, but they expose consumers to substantially lower levels of harmful or potentially harmful chemicals that are present in cigarette smoke through combustion, which are the main contributors to smoking-related diseases.

A growing body of global scientific evidence demonstrates that innovative, smoke-free alternatives have the potential to significantly reduce exposure to the toxins in cigarette smoke. And we are starting to see various health agencies around the world view these solutions as pathways towards ending smoking and why jurisdictions outside of Canada – whose scientific communities have studied this extensively – have chosen to incorporate technological alternatives into legislation.

Public Health England recently reconfirmed its long-standing position, based on independent expert evidence, that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking cigarettes. The National Health Service and other institutions have joined Public Health England in “encouraging smokers of conventional cigarettes to switch to e-cigarettes.”

The Food and Drug Administration in the United States recently authorized a heated tobacco technology for sale “as appropriate for the protection of public health.”

In doing so, the agency found that the aerosol produced by the technology “contains fewer toxins than cigarette smoke, and many of the toxins identified exist at lower levels than in cigarette smoke.”

Here, Health Canada agrees that “smokers who switch completely from cigarettes to vaping products significantly reduce their exposure to dozens of powerful toxins and carcinogens.” Yet, our legislation continues to not differentiate between cigarettes and smoke-free products.

Yes, we should be stopping smoking wherever we can, but not affording existing smokers this knowledge – that there are alternatives to cigarettes that, potentially, significantly reduce their exposure to harmful toxins – is making it harder for some to quit.

It is hard to believe but, in Canada, it is illegal to make health comparisons between tobacco products or provide relevant, credible, independent scientific information.

It is our position that government has a responsibility to ensure awareness, accessibility, and affordability of alternatives to cigarettes. This includes ensuring they are not regulated in the exact same way as cigarettes and that a specific approach based on relative risk is adopted.

Think of the laws of the road for bicycles versus motorcycles. The same distinctions and evidentiary policy analysis should be applied to vaping and heating versus cigarettes.

Crucially, measures to prevent youth from using any type of nicotine-containing product, such as requiring warning labels and listing ingredients, are essential.

Tough penalties are also needed to prevent sales to minors as well as restrictions on advertising and promotion preventing them from targeting youth. But we can strongly protect youth while still finding a way to help existing smokers.

There are millions of Canadians that smoke. We now have the technology to bring that number to zero.

But for a change of this magnitude to happen, we need policymakers, consumers, and society at large to take action. That is why it is more urgent than ever to engage in a rational, nuanced, and science-based conversation about a cooperative approach to achieving a smoke-free future for all.

For Canada, the opportunity is right in front of us and the future is now. But we have to get there together.