Today, three things are indisputable: we have to learn to live with COVID-19; we shall keep paying taxes; and, someday, we shall all die unless rapture, for those who believe in it, happens in our lifetime. Talking of death, tobacco kills over 8 million people worldwide every year. More than 7 million are due to direct smoking, while around 1.2 million are non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke.
Tobacco, a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases, accounts for over 50 percent of hospital admissions in Kenya. Kenya must reevaluate the role of each stakeholder and also explore safer alternatives to smoking in addition to helping smokers quit smoking. What are these safer alternatives to smoking and the use of tobacco? More so, are nicotine pouches the untold secret?
A nicotine pouch is a substance that is taken through the mouth and placed between the gum and the lip. Nicotine pouches deliver nicotine to blood vessels in the mouth and flavor to the taste buds. They come in small bags and contain nicotine but do not have tobacco. It is not smoked and is spat out after about an hour. Its main ingredients are water, plant-based fibers, sweeteners, and flavors.
Nicotine pouches differ from other smokeless products, such as chewable tobacco leaves, snus, and snuff, in that they are tobacco-free. Nicotine pouches are gaining popularity, but not without opposition from activists and the government.
Meanwhile, research is still ongoing to determine the health impact of nicotine pouches. Some of its reported side effects include heartburn, nausea, hiccups, sore mouth, and gum irritation.
Are nicotine pouches alternatives to quitting cigarette smoking?
Tobacco smoking is a risk factor for cancer of the mouth, throat, lungs, and also kidney disease. Infertility, reduction in libido, and miscarriages are some of the reproductive problems associated with tobacco abuse. Skin disease is also common among tobacco farmers. It follows that these smoking effects and conditions are graver than the side effects caused by nicotine pouches.
The process of combustion, which is the chemical reaction that occurs with the delivery of nicotine through smoking, is eliminated with the use of nicotine pouches. It, therefore, provides a
much safer way to consume nicotine. Switching to nicotine pouches can be a starting point for those who want to quit tobacco smoking and as a vehicle to quit nicotine altogether if they so choose.
From where I sit, those who are currently addicted to tobacco products can try nicotine pouches and finally be weaned off from nicotine contained in the pouches through short-term and approved nicotine replacement therapy such as gum, patches, nasal sprays, inhalers, or lozenges.
Although Kenya is a party to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a global health treaty that Kenya ratified in 2004, which advocates for the implementation of strong national policies, including an increase in taxes on tobacco products. The big question, however, is, doesn’t this discourage access to affordable alternatives to smoking, such as nicotine pouches?
The Tobacco Control Board and health promotion advocates in Kenya have been advocating for increased excise duty on cigarettes and nicotine. Others claim that nicotine pouches are more potent and it is an entry point to other drugs, which are mere allegations not backed by data.
Nicotine pouches are not classified as tobacco products existing in the Excise Duty Act and, therefore, are not subject to taxation. However, a rate of 5 Kenyan shillings per gram of excise duty was proposed for nicotine pouches. This discourages access to those who seek nicotine pouches as an alternative to smoking.
How do we move from here?
Imposing more and more taxes and calls to ban nicotine pouches is not the solution. High taxes are prohibitive toward access and affordability of nicotine pouches and would only push tobacco smokers away from better alternatives.
The Kenyan government supports alternative tobacco farming, such as tobacco-free farms in Migori, in partnership with the WHO, the World Food Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), where high-iron beans are in production. Although this is commendable and a good alternative, we must explore solutions to help tobacco smokers quit since tobacco is still being sold and consumed.
As a nation, Kenya needs a candid conversation about tobacco alternatives such as nicotine pouches. Taxes should not be punitive to discourage alternatives to tobacco products. As we await data on the effectiveness of nicotine pouches to help smokers and those addicted to tobacco products quit, the country must embrace policies that are balanced, gradual, and well-intentioned.
Jamlick is a writer, marketing consultant, corporate speaker, and policy fellow at the Foundation for Consumer Freedom Advancement.