What links a private initiative to prevent smoking among adolescents in the United States with the implementation of Smoking Harm Reduction Policies in the countries most affected by the addiction? Apparently nothing but ,in reality, a mighty red line connects the two dynamics.
The Bloomberg Philanthropies
In September 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies allocated $ 160 million for a three-year campaign to promote anti-smoking policies among American teenagers. Among the objectives of the initiative, the ban on the marketing of electronic cigarettes (and related flavours) and the blocking of the activities of all ECIG manufacturing companies in the country.
In subsequent years, the anti-vaping message dominated the political discussion in the US media along with the growing fear of health risks incorrectly linked to the use of e-cigarettes. Together with the states that banned the marketing and use of these devices tout-court, a progressive campaign of demonization of e-cigs and the risks associated with their use mounted.
All this has brought a concrete result: between 2019 and 2020 there was a drastic decline in the use of Ecigs among American teenagers.
A success story, which saw the philanthropic initiative of a private individual achieve a public health goal. But is it like that?
When philanthropy becomes harmful
According to many international experts, the initiatives of billionaire Michael Bloomberg promote a distorted approach to Tobacco Harm Reduction and have political repercussions for all smoking reduction policies globally.
“Science must serve the truth, not interests and ideologies – commented Prof. Riccardo Polosa, founder of CoEHAR and considered the most cited scientist in the world in the field of scientific studies on electronic cigarettes -“ It is easy to cause alarmism by deceiving those who do not have adequate knowledge to evaluate information critically. I find it very dishonest that eminent scientists and philanthropists abuse their position and their knowledge to confuse citizens, journalists and governments.“
Different scientific studies have now established that electronic cigarettes are a less harmful tool for health than conventional cigarettes. The target market to which these tools are mainly aimed is that of adult smokers who cannot quit smoking on their own and choose to switch to non-combustion solutions.
Bans on the use of electronic cigarettes to stop use among adolescents would not seem the most appropriate choice since- according to many experts in the sector- produces more harm than good for all adults who try to quit smoking.
“Any crusade against vaping is against the interests of public health. And all the more invidious when backed by millions of dollars – millions being the operative word. Millions of people want to give up smoking but can’t, so they carry on with a habit that will kill half of them because of all the toxins released when you light up a cigarette. It is the smoke that kills not the nicotine. Alongside all the other anti-smoking interventions, vaping helps people switch away from dangerous cigarettes.” Harry Shapiro, an international journalist and renowned Tobacco Harm Reduction expert, told Catania Conversation.
“ A hundred million people worldwide have already gone down that safer route out of smoking, but that is a fraction of the billion who still smoke. A moral agenda against the use of nicotine does nothing to reduce the death toll from smoking which the WHO estimate will claim a billion lives by the end of the century” says the executive editor of the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction report.
A crusade against the poor
Bloomberg’s philanthropic activities are not limited to the West but, through a complex network of non-profit organizations that finance and influence the process of defining public health policies, also influenced many developing countries.
The debate on Ecig and, in particular, on the right of smokers to have safer alternatives to the traditional cigarette is not limited only to a question of public health but is part of a broader debate of social justice for the poorest countries. Most smokers are concentrated in low- and middle-income countries.
Eighty per cent of smokers live in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean area. In countries like China, India and Indonesia, domestic smokers account for 46% of global smokers. In these regions, smoking mortality is also the highest in the world.
“While philanthropy is much needed in developing nations when it is used to influence policy and achieve goals inimical to a country’s interests, the consequences can be disastrous” underlined Samrat Chowdhery, President of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations (INNCO).
And it is a recent INNCO report that refutes all the arguments provided by the Union, funded by Bloomberg, on the prohibition of low-risk alternatives in developing countries.
“The term ‘philanthrocapitalism has gained traction in this context and especially applies to the way Bloomberg Philanthropies is shaping anti-vaping policies in developing countries which deprive smokers of a less harmful alternative. The discrimination is apparent because they do not propose the same prohibitions in the developed world” added Mr Chowdhery.