A vaping literacy problem may lie at the heart of India's hardline approach to vaping. Could improved tobacco harm reduction education amongst medical professionals and policy makers help shift India away from the WHO's prohibitionist anti-vaping stance? Samrat Chowdhery joins us to discuss this and more!
Chapters:0:00 - Intro with Joanna Junak 0:55 - Why has India enacted its vape ban? 1:56 - The prominence of WHO messaging in India 2:51 - WHO's 'Carrot and Stick' approach 4:00 - The problem of nicotine literacy 5:07 - Why have Indian media sided with the WHO's messaging? 6:35 - What will India's 2024 elections mean for vapers? 7:08 - Closing remarks
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Joanna Junak: Hello and welcome. I'm Joanna Junak and this is GFN News on GFN.TV. In India, tobacco remains one of the major causes of death and disease. Safer nicotine products have the potential to greatly reduce smoking harms across the globe. However, the Indian government banned vapes in late 2019. Since then, not much has changed. India's government is not helping people to access to safer nicotine products and is not supporting research on tobacco harm reduction products. Joining us today to discuss his latest article on India's situation is Samrat Chowdhery, a leading consumer advocate from India. Hello, Samrat. First, why is India's government still preventing people from accessing safer nicotine products?
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Samrat Chowdhery: I think it's a couple of factors. You know, one is, of course, the WHO prohibitionism, which is playing a big role. You know, and India does look up to the WHO for a lot of guidance on especially health issues. And then there is the Indian government's own interest in the tobacco trade. And while WHO and the FCTC keep rallying against tobacco companies on one end, this gets completely overlooked. So I think this financial and misguided health advice is largely what's contributing. And of course, there is low nicotine literacy. So there was a survey that most doctors even are not aware that nicotine is not what causes cancer. So I think there's a bunch of factors playing together.
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Joanna Junak: And why is the Indian government opposed to THR research in general, given that the WHO hasn't issued any specific directive against THR research?
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Samrat Chowdhery: Well, see, I think one is, of course, lack of awareness, you know, of safer alternatives. There was a debate in the parliament when most of the parliamentarians were not even aware of what these products are. So leave alone the harm reduction potential. And then I think the WHO hardline position against safer alternatives is also influencing at least the medical fraternity in a big way. And then I think the problem is so big that politicians are a little wary of engaging with it. So there is a bit of status quoism going on here.
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Joanna Junak: What is the influence of the WHO on India's anti-vaping approach? And how is this influence exerted?
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Samrat Chowdhery: Well, let's see the genesis of the ban. The ban did come in when a health minister was in power or was in the position when he had been a longtime advisor of the WHO. So the WHO prohibitionism was directly a result of the ban. The ban was a result of that. And then WHO also wields a lot of influence in the sense that it funds and partners on a lot of health programs. So it has a seat on the table. Its voice is very credible. And what it says is almost like gospel truth, not just in India, but across LMICs, that's the case. I think they also use the carrot and stick approach. So awards are given out to people who follow their lines. And if that doesn't work, then there is a stick approach. For instance, a few years ago, there was a health bureaucrat in Delhi who went against some of the Bloomberg health groups and was promptly removed. So that also has an impact.
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Joanna Junak: Smoking is one of the main causes of death and disease in India. So why do Indian health professionals receive no training on preventive interventions or mitigating tobacco-related harms?
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Samrat Chowdhery: While writing that article, I did speak to a lot of doctors. And the impression that I get is that in India, and I suppose this is true across the developing world, the doctor-patient ratio is so scooped that doctors usually are treating with a lot of patients every day, the lines outside their clinics. So they find it difficult to focus on prevention because they are so occupied with the treatment aspect. So that is one reason, that's why they don't engage so much or don't equip themselves with related information on prevention interventions. I think then there's also low nicotine literacy. I mean, there was a survey done, I think a couple of years back, which found that majority of doctors think that nicotine causes cancer. On top of which, then there is the WHO literature, which sort of guides them in the opposite direction.
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Joanna Junak: Can you tell us more about misinformation around tobacco harm reduction in the Indian media? Where does this come from?
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Samrat Chowdhery: Let me address the media part first. The media freedom in the country are generally shrinking. This is just a larger trend. And I think that's one of the reasons that media houses did not fight back against this latest attack. Because it's not normal that a government says that you cannot even speak about something. It's not a normal course of, I mean, it's not something which is, you know, that you see often in this country. However, it was done, and they used one panel discussion in which a part of a representative of the government was himself present. And this got, this went unchallenged. Now, what we see in the media is that there are no pro-THR stories. I mean, the stories are blatantly one-sided. You know, usually there is this idea of balance, you know, that you at least get a quote from the other side, but that's also done away with. So I think since the media is already under pressure, they, I think, taught in their good wisdom not to fight against this. Then there is a lot of credibility coming from WHO and the Bloomberg groups, you know, who speak with a lot of authority on the issue. So I think that also makes it difficult to get alternative or at least opposing voices.
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Joanna Junak: And the last question to you, Samrat, what changes can we expect in this year in India?
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Samrat Chowdhery: Now, from what we hear, the elections are coming. I mean, the elections are going to be held in India this year. And there are already murmurs that there might be a reconsideration of the policy after the elections. We also hear some movement in the tobacco space, in the industry space. There are a lot of people, newcomers into the industry. So there is some movement there and some reason to believe that there might be a change after the elections.
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Joanna Junak: Thank you, Samrat. We'll be following the ongoing situation as it develops. That's all for today. Tune in next time here on GFN TV or on our podcast. You can also find transcriptions of each episode on the GFN TV website. Thanks for watching or listening. See you next time. you