"Harm minimisation is a human right"

The fight against smoking is not only a fight against the tobacco industry - it is also a fight against lobbying organisations that want to prevent the development of products that can reduce the harm caused by cigarettes. So says Atakan Befrits, an activist and a key figure behind several organisations in the fight for a smoke-free world.

PROFILE: It really started when Atakan Befrits, a crayfish trader from Stockholm, was kicked out of the Turkish Import and Foreign Trade Authority. Atakan Befrits had a business idea: what if the snus that had helped his entire family quit smoking could do the same in his former home country of Turkey, where nearly 40 per cent of men smoke. All he had to do was get a formal licence and then go ahead and save lives.
But things didn't quite work out the way he expected.

"I was thrown out of the import authority feet first, told that snus was 'worse than drugs and porn together'. I was stunned and thought it was a big misunderstanding. But it turned out that a Swedish institution had spread a lot of untruths about snus to the Turkish authorities. I was boiling with anger. And I wanted to change it." says Atakan Befrits.

Snus, e-cigs and harm reduction

It has been 14 years since then. It has been a long journey. Atakan Befrits is now a seasoned activist on a global scale, behind the founding of several local and international campaigning organisations - all involved in a war where harm reduction products hover between acceptance and total ban.

'14 years ago, this was a non-issue. Snus existed in Sweden. It helped people stop smoking. But it was never officially recognised. Swedish Match used the concept of harm minimisation in their marketing and that was it. It was only when e-cigarettes appeared on the market that harm reduction became a hot potato," says Mr Snyder. Atakan Befrits to Vejpkollen.

A human right

He argues that tobacco harm reduction, access to nicotine in a less dangerous form than cigarettes, is a human right. And that vejpning, like snus, has highlighted the poor state of human rights in many countries.  

"It's about the right to a healthier life, no matter what bad choices you've made in the past. We have a climate where human rights only apply to those who don't smoke. It becomes a moral issue - and it's completely accepted. I guess it's been going on for a long time, but nowadays that attitude is completely open," says Mr Perez. Atakan Befrits.

Moral prohibitions

And he has little sympathy for the Swedish model of tobacco prevention. Where others might see prevention, he sees Atakan Befrits a systematic approach using bans, stigmatisation and scaremongering as the main tools. But scare tactics do not work for those smokers who find it very difficult to quit, he says. 'It doesn't matter how many freedoms are lost.

"We don't really see any problem with being against personal freedom in Sweden. It opens the door to prohibitionism and moral prohibitions. Unfortunately, this attitude has set the tone for the debate on e-cigarettes and other smokeless nicotine products all over the world. The Swedish influence on the issue of harm minimisation is great and unfortunately it has destroyed more than it has built up" says Atakan Befrits.

Consumers' voices

Today he is most active in INCCO - an international organisation he co-founded. INNCO is an umbrella organisation for independent consumer-driven associations around the world. Its aim is to promote harm minimisation as a method to reduce the harmful effects of smoking.

"We are ONE voice for 1.4 billion nicotine users. INNCO represents those who have switched from cigarettes to something better, but also a voice for those who don't even get the chance to do so. There are a hell of a lot of us affected by this policy. As a rule, nicotine users are never allowed to participate in the debate on the same terms as the "established" anti-smoking organisations. We are deliberately excluded, with a kind of pejorative justification that we are doing "the tobacco companies' bidding", says Mr. Poirot. Atakan Befrits.

Those who want to ban nicotine

"It's not easy to be seen, let alone gain influence," he says. The organisation is basically banned from all official conferences and hearings on e-cigarettes and snus in the world. This is also the case in Sweden, where organisations such as Tobaksfakta and Vi som inte röker (VISIR) actively ban both international and local representatives of user associations from their own and other conferences.

"It is often the same people who work in these networks. They share a prohibitionist mentality and have moral values that stem from the temperance movement. They believe that nicotine should be categorised as a drug, in principle. Those of us who think differently are not allowed to speak up, and if we do, they make sure that someone slaps us on the nose quickly. Their "tobacco endgame" is really the same as banning nicotine altogether. It's not appropriate for some stupid and uncivilised user to disagree."

E-cigarettes are an open target

In Sweden we have snus, a tobacco product where research shows little harm compared to cigarettes. With close to a million users and a well-developed industry, it is a product that few politicians want to get their hands on," says Mr Snyder. Atakan Befrits.

"E-cigarettes, on the other hand, are an open goal. The antagonists can say whatever they want, really, without rebuttal. They are not interested in any relative measures in the debate. Nicotine is the demon and harm minimisation is the devil. How big is the risk compared to nothing? It will always be more important to them when they run their campaigns." says Atakan Befrits.

New partnerships for harm reduction

However, he hopes that the idea of harm reduction can spread, despite the resistance. Researchers from all over the world, together with universities and health organisations want to, and can, change the situation, he says. If only through unofficial collaborations across national borders.

'New international platforms are slowly emerging to promote good and credible science on tobacco harm reduction. Researchers helping each other. This may involve contributing to, but also co-authoring, studies through various universities around the world. The involvement of many people increases the interest of both doctors and authorities. It also increases interest in listening to what the research really shows." says Atakan Befrits.

"E-cigs without flavour"

The future of e-cigarettes in Sweden is somewhat uncertain. A lot can happen in the next few years. It all depends on how the authorities choose to act. Atakan Befrits.

"In the worst case scenario, we will only have unflavoured e-cigs in 10 years. Not just in Sweden, but the entire EU. Snus will probably remain as it is. At best, our health authorities have found a way to combine both snus and e-cigs in the smoking cessation market. But this is perhaps hoping for too much."

First nicotine - then chocolate and soft drinks

And according to the former crayfish dealer, the stakes are high. Not least for the one billion people who actually smoke in the world. 'Smoking has an incredible impact on individual health and our ecology. If the prohibition policy, with excise taxes and restrictions on products that have the potential to minimise harm, continues, worse things are waiting around the corner, he says.

"I don't just work for safer tobacco products. I feel like a secret agent for all the industries that are next in line. Alcohol, chocolate, soft drinks, sweets. It may be hard to see it, but this lobbying effort has shown that people can be swayed by any number of oddities. If they just decide to do it. Of course, it inspires others to go after anything that ordinary people find funny."

Read more:

International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO)

15 Year Conference - on the future of the WHO Tobacco Convention (with the participation of Atakan Befrits)

Do you like Vejpkollen? Then you can support the work of the magazine!

SWISH: 1231093830

Or support continuously. Become a Patreon (i.e.: support subscription to Vejpkollen). Link to the PATREON VEHICLE CHECK on PATREON

1 Comment on “”Skademinimering är en mänsklig rättighet”

  1. I remembered that Nils Bejerot, the father of Swedish drug policy, was a Maoist, i.e. a supporter of a totalitarian ideology. It would be interesting to check out the figures in the Swedish anti-nicotine lobby, whether they have any links to shady movements, totalitarian ideologies, free churches, etc. If I remember correctly, there were people with Nazi sympathies in IOGT-NTO.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *