A hard but vital sell – convincing poorer countries of the value of harm reduction

Around 80% of the world’s tobacco users are in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where combustible (and oral) products can contribute to poverty as well as having direct health impacts. But while many of these countries do have nascent e-cigarette markets, and of course China is a dominant manufacturer, broadening the appeal of tobacco harm reduction (THR) products in them can seem to be an uphill struggle, with cultural and economic considerations significant alongside regulatory ones (sometimes very stringent, sometimes very loose).

Now, a new report from Cambridge Design Partnership – the company which developed the Voke nicotine inhaler with Kind Consumer some years back – looks at some of these obstacles.

Based on quantitative and qualitative research in China, India, Indonesia and Russia, with the UK as a control representing higher-income countries, it focuses on electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) such as e-cigarettes.

The report identifies six steps that need to be taken – or, more accurately, challenges that need to be overcome – before a tobacco user in an LMIC can be expected even to try switching, let alone to stay switched.


1. Recognise/acknowledge smoking risk

Here, “the element of denial is strong”. Around three quarters of people in China, India and Indonesia see no health benefits in giving up, while in India and Indonesia a majority actually believe cessation can be harmful. Myths and anecdotes prevail.


2 Understand smoking risk

“Critical to smokers’ adoption of ENDS as a replacement for cigarettes, on the basis of reduced risk, is the understanding that nicotine is not the greatest harm risk factor,” the researchers say – something that is of course a currently significant issue in more developed nations too.

And here the survey results show there is a long way to go. For example, “the majority of smokers surveyed in China and Indonesia (57% and 64%, respectively) selected nicotine as being most harmful. This compared to approximately 15% (China) and 3% (Indonesia) selecting tar.”


3 Have a desire to change smoking habits

As elsewhere, a majority of smokers want to quit. But “countering allegiance to current products and behaviors is challenging”, with cultural conventions (such as the Chinese habit of presenting cigarettes as gifts) and advertising both working against change.

“Advertising campaigns in Indonesia at the time of fieldwork ran with straplines such as ‘NEVER QUIT’ set against a backdrop of high-octane sporting and action endeavor,” the report notes.


4 Be aware of ENDS

Once all these issues have been overcome, smokers of course still have to take an active step to switch to e-cigarettes or other alternatives.

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    Awareness of the products is the first, obvious prerequisite and here the countries examined differed significantly: in Russia and China about 85% of tobacco users were aware of the products, but just 27% in Indonesia and 12% in India.

    Advertising may be part of the reason, but it seems unlikely to be the whole one; visibility at retail could also be important, for example, as indeed could visibility of other users.


    5 Understand ENDS as reduced risk

    This is, in effect, the continuation of points 1 and 2. Even where ENDS are familiar, they’re not necessarily seen as safer.

    “There is good evidence to suggest that significant proportions of smokers in LMIC markets believe that ENDS are more harmful than cigarettes”, the researchers say – a misapprehension that has shown occasional signs of cropping up in North America and Europe too.

    They suggest that the dogmatically anti-ENDS position of the World Health Organization (WHO) may contribute, and that body does tend to have a particularly strong influence in LMICs.


    6 Access ENDS

    Even if a consumer has got this far in their journey toward ENDS, availability in stores (or through health services, though that seems unlikely) is clearly a sine qua non of actually taking up a THR product, and ENDS tend to be much less easily available than combustible products.

    Price also “currently represents a significant barrier to many potential consumers in LMICs”.


    The Cambridge Design Partnership report is well worth reading and not only for those with a special interest in the LMIC nations. Much of what it has to say about the consumer journey, and the questions arising from it, also applies to other markets.

    Funded by the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, the report, entitled “Impediments to Tobacco Harm Reduction in LMICs: The ENDS Adoption Journey” has been released in connection with the ENDS Europe event, running 24th-25th May.

    – Barnaby Page ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Pxhere

    Barnaby Page

    Editorial director
    Before joining ECigIntelligence in early 2014 as one of its first employees, Barnaby had a 30-year career as a reporter and editor for newspapers, magazines and online services, working in Canada, the US and the Middle East as well as his current British location. He has edited publications covering fields including technology and the advertising industry, and was launch editor of the first large daily online news service in the British regional media. Barnaby also writes on classical music and film for a number of publications. Barnaby manages the editorial and reporting teams and works closely with the analyst teams, to ensure that all content meets high standards of quality and relevance. He also writes for the site occasionally, mostly on science-related issues, and is a member of the Association of British Science Writers.