Regulating the vaping industry in South Africa is complicated by deception and distraction.
By Asanda Gcoyi
The advent of electronic nicotine-delivery systems (ENDS) and electronic non-nicotine delivery systems (ENNDS) has taken the world of public health policy by surprise, it would seem. Nowhere is this more apparent than in developing and under-developed countries.
Where previously countries with little public health policymaking capacities could rely on the World Health Organization for guidance on tobacco regulation, the deep uncertainties plaguing the WHO on the best way to regulate ENNDS have left many countries unsure how to regulate important innovation in nicotine delivery.
In South Africa, this challenge has proven particularly acute. As a former leader in tobacco control, the country has struggled to institute an ENNDS regulatory framework. In May 2022, it was four years since the government first published the draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill for public comment. The bill updates the country’s longstanding Tobacco Products Control Act, first adopted in 1993.
It does this by introducing more restrictions on tobacco sales and consumption. In a stroke of policy confusion, the bill extends the restrictions imposed on combustible cigarettes to ENNDS. To date, the draft bill has not been approved by the Cabinet for tabling in Parliament, precisely because it is based on misinformation and hubris.
In general, proposals to restrict smoking and make it difficult for nonsmokers to be initiated into the habit are to be welcomed. However, it is entirely misguided to have the prevention of initiation as its sole objective of public health policy in a country with a staggering 8 million smokers out of a population of 60 million.
South Africa does not have the resources to support smokers quitting. Other than a barely functional quit line, the country does not have any smoking cessation programs sponsored by the public health system. Nicotine-replacement therapy is not freely available. There are no counselling facilities.
While the South African government cannot generally be regarded as lacking in policy-making capacity, especially in the area of tobacco control, it can be concluded that shifting narratives about ENNDS have left the government in a difficult position. WHO prevarication on the topic has not helped matters.
Where government could previously rely on the WHO to issue unequivocal policy guidance, the growing impasse between the WHO and members of the public health community in support of ENNDS as a harm reduced alternative to smoking has put government at a loss on how to proceed on ENNDS regulation. Growing scientific evidence challenging the natural inclination of the WHO to castigate behaviors it does not agree with is proving especially challenging.
While the ENNDS industry in South Africa shares government’s concern about a new generation of nicotine consumers, it remains a concern that government proposals to regulate ENNDS do not correlate with the intended outcome of reducing smoking.
As has been demonstrated in places such as the U.K., ENNDS are an efficient tool for moving smokers to potentially less harmful alternatives, with some even deciding to quit. It is a major public health policy opportunity, especially for developing countries such as South Africa, to reduce their costs of public health resulting from noncommunicable diseases associated with smoking.
In the four years that the government has attempted to come up with a regulatory framework for ENNDS, the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) has been at the forefront of calling on government to consult beyond its fellow travelers in the anti-tobacco advocacy lobby. Sadly, this has not happened.
Instead, the government has continued to rely on outdated, heavily biased studies to back up its untenable policy positions, including the rightly maligned and withdrawn study by Stanton Glantz, a researcher with the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, titled “Electronic Cigarette Use and Myocardial Infarction Among Adults in the U.S. Population Assessment of Tobacco Health,” published by the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2019.
Currently, the government looks set to introduce a tax on vaping products. This is partly justified on the basis of this and other problematic studies, some conducted as long ago as 2014. This happens against the backdrop of new scientific studies demonstrating the likely benefits of adopting ENNDS as part of a broader tobacco control strategy.
Regrettably, South Africa is not alone in embracing such misdirected policies on ENNDS. Whereas there are easy wins on tobacco control, it seems governments across the developing world have resolved to limit the very innovation that promises the most success in weaning smokers off their deadly habit. From Botswana to Kenya to Mauritius, governments in Africa and other parts of the world are resorting to draconian measures to control ENNDS rather than looking closely at the science and embedding this in their regulatory approaches.
Overall, smokers, especially poor ones, are likely to be the biggest losers in the overzealous regulation of the vaping industry. This is a direct result of governments that fail to take into account their duty to listen not only to the views they like but also those they may not necessarily appreciate.
The truth is that even the most rabid anti-ENNDS campaigner accepts that there are major differences between smoking and vaping. As such, it makes sense that governments should differentiate between the two behaviors when putting in place regulatory measures. Such differentiation should favor ENNDS over combustible products. This is not happening in the developing world. Certainly, it is not happening in South Africa. Quite the opposite is being pursued.
Given tobacco’s dominant and entrenched position as the preferred nicotine-delivery system for most nicotine addicts, stringent restrictions against ENNDS disincentivize smokers from switching. Sustained disinformation and outright lies about ENNDS make this worse. Governments complain about the costs of smoking to the public purse yet seek to protect the biggest drivers of such costs by protecting the tobacco industry from the only real alternative to emerge against smoking.
The VPASA will remain committed to the fight against senseless regulation in South Africa. To not do so would be to fail the millions of South African smokers who are desperate for alternatives to tobacco.
Asanda Gcoyi is the CEO of the Vapour Products Association of South Africa.