Smoking continues to be a significant public health challenge worldwide, and Georgia is no exception.
The World Health Organization says there are 1.3 billion (19%) tobacco users worldwide. By 2025, the number of users is expected to increase to 1.6 billion (+23%).
This “quiet pandemic” kills more than 8 million people each year, and is expected to increase to 10 million by 2030.
Based on the 2019 data, 30.7% of the population of Georgia use tobacco. Every year, 14,000 people die from tobacco-related diseases in the country.
On 1 May 2018, new tobacco control legislation came into effect in Georgia. On September 1, 2018, new regulations came into force, which strictly restricted the consumption, sale, advertising / sponsorship of tobacco.
However, the problem still exists, and it is quite serious. Yet, today, approximately 800,000 adults in Georgia still smoke. So, what’s the solution?
Strategies in place today for tobacco control are based on three main pillars. These are: Smoking prevention; Smoking cessation; Protection from passive smoking.
There is currently no consensus on adding harm reduction strategies as a fourth possible pillar.
The Institute of Social Researches is implementing a project in Georgia that aims to discuss the opportunities and challenges of a tobacco harm reduction strategy, both nationally and internationally.
However, the discussion on the concept of tobacco harm reduction in Georgia is only at an early stage. It is important to generate active discussion of this issue, for which it is crucial to increase the number of experts who have the latest scientific information, have their own visions based on scientific evidence, and who are aware of international experience and achievements.
On June 24, the Institute of Social Researches (ISR), in collaboration with Philip Morris Georgia hosted a conference “Tobacco Harm Reduction – Opportunities or Challenge to Public Health.” The conference further brought together healthcare professionals, specialists in the field of law and economy, and media representatives.
According to speakers, governments and health authorities have a critical role to play in providing clear and accurate information to consumers about alternative tobacco products and defining the regulatory frameworks for products that do not burn tobacco. Experts have the responsibility to provide accurate information on the science they develop and review. Ultimately, adult smokers, who otherwise continue to smoke, in Georgia need to embrace the opportunity offered by better alternatives and switch to them.
It should be emphasized, that there is growing number of public health institutions, experts, and governments which support the role of potentially less harmful alternatives for adult smokers and public health. Among regulators that have taken initiatives to recognize the different nature of smoke-free products and set rules to provide smokers with access to and information about science-based less harmful alternatives, it is worth citing the U.S., U.K., E.U., Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria. Others, like Greece, Norway, and New Zealand, have announced or are already taking steps in the same direction.
“The health institutions and regulators of these countries believe that smoke-free products have the potential to benefit public health, however, it should be underlined, that smoke-free tobacco products are not safe alternatives, as they contain nicotine, which is addictive. Furthermore, we should highlight, that these product are only for those adult smokers who would otherwise continue smoking or using nicotine-containing products”- noted Andrew Urushadze, Georgian public health expert.
As he points out, there is a lack of trust towards the tobacco industry and it impacts the decision-making process. The reason is that WHO suspects, the evidence published by the tobacco industry is not fully transparent and there are some results which tobacco industry prefers to leave in the shadows. But, as Andria Urushadze states, it is not the reason to prevent the discussion about alternative tobacco products, their risks and potential benefits.
“The government and the public policy makers can impact the pace of the tobacco harm reduction process. The current tendency indicates that smokers have the desire to switch to alternative tobacco products, however they need to have an access to the official information about these alternatives, their potential risks and benefits. Only through transparency we can accelerate the transition process. We have an opportunity to save the lives of hundreds of million people”, – said David Sweanor, Advisory Committee Chair at the University of Ottawa Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics.