That the British American Tobacco (BAT) Kenya and Kenya’s Ministry of Health is hazardous is an understatement.
In what is a clear case of inducements against high level blackmail and lobbying, based on skewed information, by BAT then Health Cabinet Secretary was initially reluctant to accede to the pressure – before he pulled the rug under the feet of the Poison and Pharmacy Board (PPB) – where BAT-K had taken a scandalous legal refuge to avert the realities of the Tobacco Regulations of 2008.
In an earthquake-like investigation conducted by Examination and first published by the UK’s Guardian, all is not well with what we christen as the :”Smoking scam” roping in former and a section of current heath officials.
In a betrayal of public trust, and obviously baited by likely bribery, the Kenyan government watered down health warnings on nicotine pouches after BAT threatened said it would pull investment from a new factory in Nairobi’s Industrial Area.
Letters between BAT and Afya House show the government climbed down to the tobacco giant’s demand to sell Velo – one of the biggest-selling nicotine pouch brands globally – with significantly smaller health warnings and without mentioning potentially cancer-causing toxicants present in the products.
This is despite Kenya boasting of Article 46 of the Constitution which emphasizes consumer rights.
Ironically, the same Ministry of Health is overwhelmed with the ever rising cancer cases – mostly out of carcinogenic foodstuffs, beverages, cigarettes and other materials that find a ready dumping ground in Kenya.
The few independent studies that have been conducted on nicotine pouches have also revealed the presence of cancer-causing TSNAs in most brands. These are compounds that form naturally when tobacco is processed, in this case when nicotine is extracted to add into the pouches.
BAT’s own research has found that its Velo nicotine pouches contain the two most dangerous TSNAs, though it says they are not found in “quantifiable” levels.
Scientists from Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment said TSNAs potentially pose a health risk even at very low, not quantifiable, amounts. Writing in a study, they said nicotine manufacturers should improve their processes to make sure carcinogenic substances such as TSNAs are not present.
Nicotine pouches are quickly evolving products that vary from one another and likely contain a number of other chemicals which may be cancer-causing, says the American Cancer Society.
BAT said that nicotine pouches have a similar safety profile to nicotine replacement products such as lozenges and gum.
British American Tobacco first launched its nicotine pouches into the Kenyan market in 2019.
The company obtained its license to sell the products through the Pharmacy & Poisons Board, which regulates drugs and medicines. Under that license, the pouches, then sold under the brand name Lyft, were only to be sold in drug stores.
That provision was ignored. BAT and its vendors sold the pouches online and in retail stores. BAT advertised the pouches through social media influencers and giveaways at universities. Their popularity with young people, including children, soared.
COFEK has meanwhile written to Afya House demanding more details of the developing scam – that is by all means headed to Courts