More than a year, 2020 felt like an era - Foundation for a Smoke-Free World

More than a year, 2020 felt like an era

It was an era in which we became accustomed to daily death tolls broadcast on TV; work, school, and play shifted to virtual space; and masks served as both a life-saving accessory and confounding controversy. On many fronts, the era was marked by despair, not only from the virus proper, but also from the isolation and economic burden that followed lockdown measures. Yet, this era also brought a necessary reevaluation of priorities. As the world greets 2021, there exists a newfound appreciation for the sanctity of life; and otherwise trite wishes of “a happy  and healthy new year” take on a profound sincerity.

As President of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, it is my job to think critically about measures that can promote health–this year and all years. Likewise, Foundation staff and grantees are committed to reducing death and disease globally. Given as much, 2020 also marked a unique era for the Foundation. In addition to our continued efforts to end smoking, we introduced new projects at the intersection of COVID-19 and tobacco control. 

Early on in the pandemic, we conducted a poll to determine how lockdown conditions affected tobacco and nicotine users in five countries. We also launched the Global Health Perspectives Podcast, which explored, among other topics, parallels between the tobacco epidemic and COVID-19. Indeed, as we carried out our work, it was impossible to ignore such parallels. For instance, in considering the spread of misinformation about the virus, we recalled the “misinfodemic” surrounding EVALI in 2019. Both cases exemplify the dangers of inaccurate health messaging and the challenge of correcting false perceptions. Such challenges perennially hinder progress in tobacco harm reduction (THR) and are thus all too familiar to me and my colleagues.

Just as many people responded irrationally to life-saving masks, so do many in the public health community irrationally reject the life-saving benefits of THR. Unsurprisingly then, many smokers hold inaccurate views about tobacco and nicotine products—a phenomenon that the Foundation documented in its Global State of Smoking poll.

According to poll results, a large number of smokers believe that e-cigarettes are equally or more harmful than combustible tobacco, and that nicotine drives tobacco-related cancer. These findings reflect more than an abstract knowledge gap: poor health communication directly and detrimentally affects behavior. A smoker who views all nicotine products as equally deadly will not be motivated to switch to a harm reduction product; and a person who believes that masks cause illness has little reason to don one.

Though it is tempting to pass judgment on those who espouse such dangerous views, solving the problem requires going a step further. Namely, it requires interrogating the source of misinformation, holding relevant parties accountable, and taking action to inspire change. To that end, in 2020 the Foundation supported several THR projects, including Burning Issues: The Global State of Harm Reduction and the Dubrovnik Consultation Summary. We also launched the Tobacco Transformation Index microsite, which tracks the behavior of the tobacco industry, particularly as it relates to the transition to THR. For more information about this initiative and all our work this year, please click here to see our recent newsletter.

Finally, 2020 marked fifteen years since the development of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC); and the ninth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the FCTC was scheduled for this November. Though the event was ultimately postponed, the Foundation used this year to organize research and public dialogues that are sure to inform expert discussion in this space. When COP9 arrives in 2021, it will—like so many postponed events—be greeted with a new appreciation. Just as we will not take for granted the opportunity to gather with friends for a simple meal, nor should we squander opportunities to meaningfully improve global health.  

If 2020 was a year of despair, 2021 arrives with a glimmer of hope: finally, a vaccine. In the coming months, health officials must convince the public to embrace this amazing feat of science; and if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that messaging on this front must be clear and consistent. I only hope that we can adopt similarly lucid messaging in the area of tobacco cessation and harm reduction. Prior to COVID-19, tobacco was the largest cause of preventable death in the world. After the pandemic subsides, that fact will remain true. Moving forward, we must treat tobacco use as the pandemic that it is; if we do so, we may truly end smoking in this generation.

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