Group warns Asian countries against ‘philanthropic colonialism’

‘philanthropic colonialism’

A regional group of consumer advocates denounced what it called “philanthropic colonialism” perpetuated by well-funded foundations to mislead many countries in Asia and the Pacific into adopting restrictive policies against vaping and heated tobacco products (HTPs) which in effect deprive smokers of safer alternatives to combustible cigarettes.

The Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (CAPHRA) said western charities like Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were pouring millions of dollars to discredit tobacco harm reduction—a public health strategy that encourages the use of safer alternatives to combustible cigarettes such as e-cigarettes, HTPs, and Swedish snus.

Nancy Loucas, the Executive Coordinator of CAPHRA, said these charities, funded by some of the world’s richest billionaires, developed their own policies against vaping with “western mind set” and were trying to prescribe such policies on low and middle-income countries, particularly in Asia and the Pacific.

“In the current environment, there is a lot of philanthropic colonialism.  This is a term for people who have a lot of money and use it to help people in LMICs and then turn around and control their policymaking,” Loucas said in an interview with Canada-based Christopher Balkaran, the creator of the Strong and Free Podcast.

“And a lot of people who rely on funding from private foundations will do whatever they need to do in order to maintain that revenue stream,” she said.

CAPHRA is a coalition of volunteer grass-root consumer organizations that are made up of vapers, former smokers and people who want to have access to safer nicotine products. “We are up against pretty big anti-tobacco harm reduction groups globally, not just in Asia Pacific. But we help each other out.  It is like a community and we work together,” said Loucas.

Loucas said the problem with the tobacco control measures pushed by the World Health Organization and big private foundations is that they were specifically designed for wealthy countries such as the United States which have strong health care systems and resources.

“Low and middle-income countries don’t have resources to provide smoking cessation programs for people who smoke.  That is the number one reason.  Number 2, in some of these countries, governments are actually involved in the manufacture and production of tobacco.  So it does not really serve their purpose to have people stop smoking,” she said.

Loucas also said smoking cessation programs anchored on the quit-or-die approach did little to reduce the smoking epidemic in the world, as there are still 1.1 billion smokers today.  She said this is because cigarettes became very addictive starting in the 1980s when tobacco companies put additives and chemicals in their products. “In their bid to lower tar and nicotine, they added chemicals.  In the process, they made the nicotine that is naturally occurring in tobacco more powerful, more addictive and more potent.  It’s all the other stuff that’s in it that made it harder for a lot of us to stop,” she said.

She said this is why most smokers could not just quit and were ready to spend their last money on cigarettes, instead of food.  Unfortunately, the WHO and some private foundations could not understand the problem and were insisting on their ineffective methods. “It is very hard for them to understand because they never experienced it,” she said.

“A lot of people who are against us, they don’t see us as human beings.  They see us as numbers, they see us as data.  They don’t see the people behind it—the humanity,” she said.

“What a lot of tobacco controllers don’t understand or process is when you are living hand to mouth like that, and you are living with the effects of colonialism and racism, there is a lot of stress involved with that. One of the things that nicotine does for people is that it can calm them down.  It is a break from their everyday stress.  That is why a lot of people still smoke. It is their comfort mechanism,” Loucas said.

She said this is where tobacco harm reduction becomes effective, as it helps people continue to manage their stress through nicotine consumption without the harm caused by the combustion of cigarettes. “If they can get the same chemical which is nicotine in a safer delivery method, that should be a good thing. It is not the nicotine that is the problem, it is the combustion. But a lot of people demonized nicotine,” she said.

Loucas disclosed that even a former health minister once thought that nicotine is carcinogenic.  “No, nicotine is not the problem, it is the combustion.  That’s where a lot of the problems come in.  A lot of politicians create what’s published by the media, and they take it as gospel. They don’t have the time or the inclination to do the research to understand what they are regulating,” she said.

She explained that the harm from cigarettes comes from the burning or combustion of tobacco which releases thousands of carcinogens.  Vaping and HTPs, on the other hand, involve heating, and not combustion to release nicotine.

Loucas said even the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control recognizes harm reduction as a core tobacco control policy which the organization failed to implement. “The Framework Convention is not only about the control of tobacco but also about the reduction of harm caused by tobacco use. A lot of governments focus on the first part of the article and kind of disregard the second part,” she said.

“The whole point of Framework Convention is to minimize the harm of tobacco on people’s health.  But you’ve got a group of people out there who think that the less harmful alternatives is a threat,” she said.

Loucas said countries should look at the example of the United Kingdom which embraced tobacco harm reduction. “The UK is probably the best example globally of the government embracing tobacco harm reduction and knows it has been beneficial to them, their health systems and their public health,” she said.

She said vaping is considered a valid smoking cessation method in the U.K.  “People are allowed to vape in hospitals. There are vape shops in hospitals.  Public Health England has been a strong supporter for a very long time of harm reduction.

Loucas said that in general, resolving the smoking problem “requires pragmatism, requires stepping out of your comfort zone, and requires listening to people”.

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