Tobacco use presents a challenge to the global community since it is associated directly and indirectly with deaths and negative welfare effects on users and society. More than 7 million people die globally from direct tobacco use and another estimated 1.2 million non-smokers die as a result of exposure to second-hand smoke. The use of tobacco has been identified as a key health risk factor shared by all the four leading non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which are: cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases. As a response, the global community adopted the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005 “to reduce continually and substantially the prevalence of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke.”
One of the key components of the WHO FCTC is the requirement to raise taxes on tobacco use. Although progress has been made in the more developed nations African countries face a daunting task to reduce tobacco use. One thorny issue is the proliferation of new tobacco products – designed to evade tobacco taxes and thus undermine the control of the use of tobacco. Initially, these products included Shisha and e-cigarettes. Some countries like Kenya have since moved to update their tax laws to apply specific taxes to these products.
Even as countries are playing catch up, the tobacco industry has taken a step forward and is now introducing newer products in the market. A recent example is the introduction of nicotine pouches in Africa which is described as a smokeless tobacco product. One common product is called LYFT which is a nicotine pouch marketed by British American Tobacco. LYFT was introduced in Kenya in the last quarter of 2019 and was registered in Kenya as a pharmaceutical drug and hence not subject to the excise tax that is normally imposed on tobacco. The nicotine pouches do not meet the descriptions of what a ‘poison’ is as prescribed in Kenya’s Pharmacy and Poisons Act. The product is easily found in supermarkets and local shops and the current absence of age restrictions exposes children to a potentially addictive product.
In the USA, the product is classified as a tobacco product because they contain nicotine obtained from tobacco. There is a lot to learn from Norway which has a regulation (regulation no. 1044 of 13 October 1989) that prohibits the introduction of not only new tobacco products but also nicotine-containing products. Even with this law, the tobacco-free nicotine pouches were introduced in 2014 and banned by the Norwegian Directorate of Health in 2018 because the product was “a new form of nicotine.” The product was reintroduced in the Norwegian market with a minute amount of bleached tobacco added to it (to technically qualify for the Norwegian market).
In Africa, it is common for the new tobacco products to be declared as food or even pharmaceutical products during importation. The emerging products may thus undermine tax revenues. Lack of awareness of the customs officials and other stakeholders (as to the specific nature of the products) may complicate remedial measures and may call for concerted efforts from all stakeholders. It is apparent from these experiences that African Tobacco Control stakeholders should be wary of new tobacco industry products since there is no independent testing of their constituents nor biomarkers of their effects. In addition, there is no research analyzing their nicotine delivery.
As part of its remedial measures, Kenya needs to prohibit the introduction of new tobacco products containing nicotine. There is an urgent need to carry out independent testing and research of constituents, biomarkers, and effects of the new products to protect public health. The governments and other stakeholders should enhance the capacity of tax authorities and administrators through continuous sensitization and training.