Global Forum on Nicotine 2021 Focuses on Harm Reduction

The message from the 30 speakers who spoke during the Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN) 2021 in person or online was clear. Policymakers in public health and tobacco control need to listen to both the science on tobacco harm reduction and the experiences of consumers who are benefiting from it every day. Ideology must be set aside to prioritize progress towards the common goal of ending smoking.

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Experts at the GFN were discussing an approach called tobacco harm reduction, in which people who cannot quit nicotine are encouraged to switch from dangerous combustible or oral products to safer nicotine products including vapes (e-cigarettes), pasteurized snus, non-tobacco nicotine pouches and heated tobacco products.

Compared to continued smoking, all are significantly less harmful to health. Gerry Stimson, Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London and a founder of the GFN, said during the conference that much of what she has seen and heard during the event was encouraging.

“It feels as though we’re on the right trajectory. Consumers all over the world are becoming aware of the opportunities offered by safer nicotine products, and innovations in the market will, I believe, lead to the eventual obsolescence of combustible cigarettes,” she said. “The question is how to speed up the process and scale up, so that tobacco harm reduction reaches all smokers, everywhere, as quickly as possible.”

Multiple panel discussions took in subjects ranging from safer nicotine product regulation, tobacco harm reduction in low-to-middle-income countries (LMICs), and orthodoxy and dissent in science. Speakers’ pre-recorded presentations for the panel sessions will remain available online at the conference website.

Three keynotes were delivered to honor the memory of professor Michael Russell, psychiatrist, research scientist and pioneer in the study of tobacco dependence and the development of treatments to help smokers quit. Russell’s observation in the British Medical Journal in 1976 that “people smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar” remains highly influential within the field.

Fiona Patten MP and Leader of the Reason Party, Australia, opened proceedings with the first Michael Russell Keynote with her speech. Jon Fell, a founder of investment company Ash Park and Dr. Derek Yach, an anti-smoking advocate for more than 30 years, is the president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, gave the other two keynote speeches. They all centered on harm reduction.

“In Australia, governments have consistently stated that drug use must be treated as a health issue not a criminal one. But when it comes to nicotine, they are actively making criminals out of users,” Patton said. “And not all nicotine users. Just those who are trying to end their deadly relationship with combustible tobacco. Most political parties refuse to accept donations from big tobacco – yet they still protect it. For decades they ignored the science about the dangers of smoking, but today they argue that there is not enough science to sanction alternative nicotine products.”

GFN does not receive any sponsorship from manufacturers, distributors or retailers of nicotine products, including pharmaceutical, electronic cigarette and tobacco companies. However, the conference operates an open door policy. Consumers, policymakers, academics, scientists and public health experts participate alongside representatives from manufacturers and distributors of safer nicotine products. The event organizers believe that dialogue and strategic engagement of all stakeholders involved in tobacco and nicotine use, control and production is the only way to effect true, sustainable change – both to industry practices and the public health outcomes related to smoking.