Authority tried to stop harm minimisation conference

Spanish authorities have stopped a conference on harm reduction that was to take place at the University of Madrid. At least partially. Under pressure from the authorities, the university decided to cancel the venue. But the THR Summit Spain will now take place online, according to the organisers.
"It is now more important than ever to organise the conference. It is not only about science and research. It is also about censorship and a free debate on scientific findings" says vejp activist Julio Ruades.

Tobacco Harm Reduction Summit Spain 2023" was to be a physical conference focusing on harm minimisation as a method to reduce smoking-related deaths. But at the last minute the university, which provided the venue, cancelled all participation. The reason was pressure from Spanish Health Authority, who thought the message favoured the tobacco industry and "counteracted the agency's public health objectives"

Letter from the Ministry of Health

According to El Pais newspaper the conference is cancelled after the Spanish health authority, but also individual WHO officials, contacted the Rector of the Juan Carlos University in Madrid.

'A few months ago, we were asked if we could host a scientific anti-smoking conference where the results of a study would be presented. There seemed to be no problem. However, this week we have received a letter from the Ministry of Health asking us not to participate and we have acted according to its criteria," says a spokesperson for the Centre. El Pais.

"Scandalous political pressure"

As a result, the university, which provided the venue, cancelled the conference. According to the newspaper El Pais, the organisation Fundación España Salud from the event.

Despite the setback, the event will still take place - online - with somewhat limited content.

"It is now even more important that the conference becomes a reality. It is scandalous that a state-funded university allows itself to be controlled by political pressure when it comes to a scientific debate. Especially when it comes to the issue of smoking, something that affects all people in society" says vejp activist and vlogger. Julio Ruades in a statement via YouTube.

Sensitive debate on smokeless nicotine

The controversy stems from a heated debate about smoking in Spain. At present, nearly 32 per cent of the population smoke. This is high even by European standards, where around 20 per cent smoke. The organisers of the conference, the group International declaration for a smoke-free Spain, launched a manifesto last year to persuade the Spanish government to change its strategy to reduce smoking in the country. 

The manifesto proposes 170 doctors, researchers and health professionals harm minimisation as a sustainable strategy and refers to developments in countries such as Sweden and the UK. In Sweden, Norway and the UK, where smokeless nicotine products such as snus and e-cigarettes are popular, smoking rates are significantly lower than in the rest of Europe, at close to five, nine and 14 per cent respectively, and are steadily declining.

"The smoking rate in Spain has not decreased since 2005 and remains at 32 per cent despite all measures. Cessation and prevention are not enough to help smokers quit. There is now evidence that e-cigarettes, snus, heated tobacco and similar nicotine products are significantly less harmful than cigarette smoking and that they help smokers quit," the group writes in its manifesto.

Do not believe in harm minimisation

The Spanish Public Health Agency, on the other hand, calls for stricter regulation of e-cigarettes, arguing that harm reduction as a method is not supported by research. The agency refers smokers to nicotine medicines and argues that the emergence of other smokeless nicotine products should be further restricted. It argues that commercial interests are wrongly promoting these products as "harmless".

"It is not appropriate from a health point of view to consume a harmful product regardless of its comparison with other products. The use of these devices as replacement therapy would in that case have to be carried out and prescribed by a doctor." writes the Spanish Health Authority in a 2020 report.

But according to Julio Ruades it is clear that the authorities do not want to expose their principled stance on harm minimisation to criticism.

"The authorities in Spain are going against what other health authorities around the world are saying. In the UK they are relying on research showing that harm minimisation in the form of vejpning is scientifically proven. It is in the public's interest to compare different strategies and make a judgement afterwards," said Julio Ruyades.

Free from corporate sponsorship - unusual

Swedish addiction and nicotine researcher Karl Fagerström is one of the researchers who will be speaking at the conference. He was a bit surprised that the physical conference was cancelled at such short notice.

"I have attended many conferences on harm reduction, but what struck me about this one is that it is completely free of corporate sponsorship. We speakers volunteered, with travel reimbursement only," he told Vejpkollen.

"Religious resistance"

Karl Fagerström has worked in the field of harm reduction and smoking cessation since the 1970s. He has mainly worked in the pharmaceutical industry and is the creator of the first nicotine pouch launched in the early 2000s. According to him, this is not the first time that authorities and health organisations have reacted negatively when topics such as e-cigarettes, snus and reduced risk use of nicotine are on the agenda.

"This has been going on since nicotine gum appeared in the 70s. The same with nicotine sprays and patches. Now some medicines have become reasonably accepted, even if they are not very effective. But when you start talking about e-cigarettes or snus, it tends to be a big deal. The reactions are almost religious in nature." says Karl Fagerström.

The "THR Summit Spain 2023" conference will take place online on 23 February. Participants include Clive Bates, Konstantinos Farsalinos and a number of Spanish scientists and doctors. Julio Ruades will also broadcast the event live via Twitch.

Registration for the THR Summit Spain 2023 is free for those interested. The event will take place on Thursday 23 February between 16:00 and 21:00: click here for online registration here.

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