Nicotine abuse trapping children, WHO tells Kenya

Vapes and e-cigarettes do not help smokers, they worsen addiction, it says

In Summary

• WHO’s position is supported by health advocates in Kenya, who want nicotine products subjected to tobacco laws

• One lobby says such products must be cleared from the market until the government can properly regulate them

Youths in Kamukunji, Nairobi, admire a package of nicotine pouch
Youths in Kamukunji, Nairobi, admire a package of nicotine pouch
Image: FILE

The World Health Organisation has for the first time strongly urged the government to regulate nicotine products, calling them “a trap to recruit children”.

In his weekly global media address, WHO director Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus made it clear nicotine products, such as pouches, vapes and e-cigarettes, do not help smokers but actually worsen the addiction crisis.

Such products are the tobacco industry’s key marketing strategy because cigarette use is falling globally.

The industry says they are less harmful and, therefore, a better alternative to cigarettes.

Dr Tedros said this is not true and the products should be regulated like tobacco.

“When the industry introduced the electronic cigarettes and vaping narrative, they tried to sell it as part of harm reduction. It's not true. It’s a trap,” he said.

“Kids are being recruited at an early age, 10 years, to do vaping and e-cigarettes because they think it's cool. Then they get hooked, then they move into regular smoking.”

Tobacco use kills 6,000 Kenyans every year, according to the Ministry of Health.

“E-cigarettes and vaping are also harmful. Whether it's electronic cigarettes or vaping, it has to be regulated. Please protect your citizens, especially your children,” Dr Tedros added.

The WHO’s position was quickly supported by the civil society.

The Tobacco Control and Health Promotion Alliance, previously known as KETCA, said such products must be cleared from the market until the government can properly regulate them.

“Apparently, the oral nicotine pouches are turning to be a wildfire that if not addressed promptly, we shall be consumed,” Ketca chairman Joel Gitali said.

“What makes it so hard for the government to clear the country of products that are aimed at destroying minors, and which aren't sufficiently regulated? Whose responsibility is it?”

Kenya is a party to the world’s only health treaty, the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which calls for strict regulation of tobacco and nicotine products.

The immediate former head of the Tobacco Control Board, Nancy Gachoka, said there are only two ways of regulating nicotine products: a total ban or subjecting them to tobacco control laws.

She dismissed the standards being developed by the Kenya Bureau of Standards and the industry to regulate nicotine products.

British American Tobacco Kenya, in its 2022 annual report, told its shareholders it supported the standards.

“The Kenya Bureau of Standards has been at the forefront in facilitating the development of product standards, which, once adopted, will guarantee the quality of products in the specific categories,” it said.

Gachoka argued the standards will facilitate the industry’s free access to policymakers, which the FCTC bans.

“The standards are just a way of getting into GOK offices, especially Kebs, and also get the Ministry of Trade into agreements,” she said.

“The standards are a way of circumventing the laws that prohibit tobacco industry interactions with government officials.”

Samuel Ochieng, head of the Consumer Information Network, said the nicotine pouches sold in Kenya do not comply with provisions of the Tobacco Control Act 2007 and Tobacco Control Regulations 2014, such as graphic health warnings.

“What the tobacco industry expects is that after having the standards approved, then there will be no need for them to comply with the TCA 2007 and tobacco control regulations 2014,” he said.

“This is because the product would be considered tobacco-free and, therefore, can be sold like sweets and drinking water.”

In the past, the Kenya Parents Association has complained of the rampant use of nicotine pouches in schools.

The WHO says nicotine exposure during adolescence can disrupt normal brain development and may have long-lasting effects, such as increased impulsivity and mood disorders.

It can also cause miscarriage in pregnant women and even sudden infant death syndrome.

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