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In a continuation of discussions surrounding the position paper released from The Union on “Where Bans Are Best,” another panel was assembled to address the topic of harm-reduction and tobacco consumption in Latin America. 

This panel included Senior Correspondent Dom Garrett, Francisco Javier Ordoñez Ospina, Alexandro Lucian, and Ignacio Leiva Benitez.

About the Latin American Panelists

In addition to the other members of the panel, Alexandro Lucian smoked combustible tobacco and tried everything to quit. However, in May 2015, he found the solution that worked for him: nicotine vapor products. As he became more educated and more involved in harm-reduction and tobacco use and started a blog, titled Vapor Aqui. His involvement in the space led him to become a journalist. He began sharing information about harm reduction products with people who, like him, had trouble quitting smoking with the classic methods. 

Francisco Javier Ordoñez Ospina began looking for a way to quit smoking in 2013 when he came across the same products, and he said the next day after trying them, he stopped smoking. He also became more involved as he grew to learn more about the space and joined other leaders of consumer advocacy groups across Latin America and Spain to form ARDT Iberoamérica, the Alliance to Reduce the Harm from Smoking. We at VIDA News were on hand at the signing of the charter of that alliance.

Ignacio Leiva Benitez started vaping in 2009, an alternative to previously smoking two packs a day. Like the others, he tried many different methods to quit smoking with no success until he found these safer nicotine products. Not long after he had success in his quitting journey, in the middle of 2010, the minister of Chile tried to ban e-cigarettes. Ignacio, and others like him, created a campaign to combat the lies of the administration.

Both he and his sister have been diagnosed with cancer, and while his sister’s disease was not smoking-related, the pain of both watching and experiencing the effects of cancer took a toll on him and his family. He wants to spread awareness of misinformation about safer nicotine products so that people can live longer with a better quality of life. 

The Importance of Accurate Information In Latin America

In LMICs, one of the commonalities regarding the issue of harm reduction is the misinformation spread by mainstream media about e-cigarettes and vaping. Benitez stresses the importance of not taking the word of the media as the truth. He emphasized that the tobacco industry doesn’t care about the health of the consumers, which is why he spends so much time advocating for vaping and the lives these alternatives will save. 

Lucian has also witnessed a fair amount of misinformation about vaping and e-cigarettes in Brazil. He states that the general population believes the information the media puts out about e-cigarettes, no matter how inaccurate the studies are. People see someone on TV and think the data must be accurate, when in fact, much of the information is false, he says. 

As the discussion turns to the position paper from The Union titled “Where Bans Are Best,” Ospina states that the arguments within that piece have already been refuted. The authors are aware of the evidence. He says there have been millions of tobacco-consumption related deaths, yet the tobacco industry continues to prevent people from having access to lower-risk alternatives. 

The panel’s Senior Correspondent, Dom Garrett, adds to that sentiment by saying there are an estimated 800 million people who smoke in LMICs. He says that denying access to products we know to bee less harmful causes a split between two different classes of citizens. 

The issue with the studies many of these companies are publishing, according to Benitez, is how they consistently manipulate the data. He believes that the driving force behind these fraudulent studies is the industry’s personal interest, and it’s irrelevant to tobacco companies whether the reviews are accurate or not. 

Benitez continues by saying that the way the tobacco industry looks at LMICs varies differently from higher-income countries, saying the sector treats LMICs as if they are unable to think in the same ways as the population of wealthier countries. “We have the same right as anyone else to fight for our health,” he states.

Black Markets and Tobacco Harm Reduction

The topic of black markets within LMICs comes up, emphasizing how dangerous these markets are, with no way of knowing what is being put in those products. Benitez says the solution is to regulate e-cigarettes as a way of protecting the users and letting them know what they are vaping.

Lucian agrees with Benitez on the dangers of the black market, saying many of the products found in the black market, cause more harm because there is information on how they’re being made and what is being used.

Lucian believes the impact of regulating these products would be enormous in protecting consumers from unknown liquids and unsafe devices. He says that Consumer’s Choice Center did a survey in 2018 in Brazil about how many people smoke and how many could migrate to e-cigarettes. According to the study, if Brazil had the same regulations as England, it would possibly have 5.5 million people switching from tobacco to vaporizers. 

The group does emphasize these alternatives not being harmless products, but rather much less harmful than cigarettes. Lucian says he doesn’t want youth using these products but that we need to focus on putting out that first fire, the use of cigarettes, and regulation of vaping before tackling other issues.

As the discussion winds down, Benitez reminds the viewers of the purpose of electronic cigarettes, which is to help people and reduce harm. He continues by saying there is nothing that produces cancer more than tobacco at this time. It’s the first reason for death with an obvious solution. 

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