Mexico Supreme Court Nixes Import Ban on “Heat-Not-Burn” Harm Reduction Products

    On July 16, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that heated tobacco products (HTP), sometimes known as “heat-not-burn” products, will be exempted from a February 2020 presidential decree that bans importation of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS). It was a victory for smokers in Mexico and for those who support tobacco harm reduction. But it was not the outcome that many legislators wanted—including Dr. Hugo López Gatell, head of the government’s Undersecretariat of Prevention and Health Promotion and a vehement opponent of vaping and HTP.

    A fatal blow to the HTP ban came when it was leaked that the draft of the decree was written by a lawyer working for the nicotine prohibitionist group Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK.)

    “It was an embarrassment for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has expressed opposition to foreign NGOs and agents meddling with Mexican government regulations,” Dr. Roberto Sussman, a researcher at the National University of Mexico and president of Pro-Vapeo Mexico, told Filter.

    CTFK, flush with millions from the Bloomberg Foundation, is on a worldwide crusade to block smokers from access to safer nicotine products. It has a long, disgraceful track record of influencing policymakers to ban or severely restrict vaping in the region.

    It’s not the first time Mexico’s Supreme Court has made a positive drug policy intervention in recent weeks. On June 28, it stepped in to legalize marijuana, after lawmakers had failed to finalize the legislation the court demanded three years earlier.

    By allowing these devices to become widely available and affordable, Mexico can drive down the 47,000 smoking-related deaths it suffers each year.

    Prior to the latest ruling, makers of HTP like IQOS were able to import and sell these devices legally using a loophole in the law called “habeas corpus trials.” But the loophole prevented the development of a fully regulated, legal market. The new presidential decree reverses that and allows for increased sales of these devices.

    Unfortunately, vapes that use e-liquids continue to be banned by the Mexican government. According to Sussman, “The vaping market in Mexico has been functioning since 2009 as part of the huge informal economy, which employs over 50 percent of the work force and it is illegal but not criminal. There is lax enforcement of the law and vaping and smoking is not a government public health priority.” More than 1.2 million Mexicans—1 percent of the adult population—use vapor products somewhat regularly, according to a survey by the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction (GSTHR).

    Unlike vapes, HTP use tobacco. The devices heat tobacco sticks to produce vapor, but never to combustion temperature.  Combustion is what creates smoke, releasing thousands of cancer-causing chemicals.

    On the continuum of risk for nicotine-containing products, HTP are vastly safer than cigarettes. A comprehensive independent review looked at the evidence from 31 studies, including eight that were not industry-related, but all of which were peer-reviewed, and concluded that devices delivered up to 75 percent fewer harmful toxins. Overall, HTP “expose users and bystanders to substantially fewer harmful and potentially harmful compounds than smoking cigarettes.”

    In 2019, the FDA allowed the tobacco company Philip Morris International to start selling IQOS in the US. The FDA stated: “Following a rigorous science-based review through the premarket tobacco product application (PMTA) pathway, the agency determined that authorizing these products for the US market is appropriate for the protection of the public health because, among several key considerations, the products produce fewer or lower levels of some toxins than combustible cigarettes.”

    Heated tobacco products are harm reduction. They allow smokers to dramatically reduce their risks. By allowing these devices to become widely available and affordable, Mexico can drive down the 47,000 smoking-related deaths it suffers each year. Now it needs to do the same for vapes.

     


     

    Photograph of HTP with vapes by Vaping360 via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    PMI has previously provided unrestricted grants to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter. Knowledge-Action-Change, which publishes GSTHR, has provided restricted grants and donations to The Influence Foundation. Filter’s Editorial Independence Policy applies.

     

    • Helen is the senior editor of Filter. She has written about nicotine, mental health and drug policy for publications including Al Jazeera, AlterNet, Harper’s and The Influence. As an LCSW, she works with drug users in medical and community mental health settings. An expert on tobacco harm reduction, she provides training and consultation on mental health, nicotine use and THR, and in 2016 organized the first Tobacco Harm Reduction Conference in the US. Helen is also a documentary filmmaker.

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