Harm reduction: It is way beyond what you think

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Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas that can reduce harmful behaviours and the risks associated with these behaviours. Measures that one can take to reduce the harm or risks they take are called harm reduction and while the word itself may sound new, all of us practice harm reduction on a daily basis. Harm reduction is basically common sense, it stops people from being injured, affected or dying from things that are preventable – it’s effective, it’s smart and it saves lives!

Harm reduction is the application of measures to reduce the risk of harm from a potentially risky activity, and an example of this is driving. Driving, when it first started was a potentially risky activity but over time introduction of safety measures like wearing a seatbelt, a helmet, and signals to control and manage the flow of traffic prevents many accidents on daily basis. Additionally, the regulators also introduced changes to road safety by incorporating road signs, and setting up a speed limit, together these measures reduced the risk of injury to the drivers in the case of an accident resulting in fewer fatalities as a consequence of driving. And while these measures have made it a safer mode of transportation, fewer risks associated with it remain.

Though it cannot eliminate the risk completely, harm reduction works to reduce the risks associated with one’s behaviours or certain activities significantly reduced. When the Covid-19 pandemic came, the world almost came to a halt because of its spread and after initial research, scientists discovered that it spreads through the air we breathe. As a first line of defence, the first precautionary measure was to avoid moving in public spaces, but that was impossible, the virus was spreading like wildfire even during the curfew-like lockdowns. And that’s when scientists recommended that people start wearing masks to control the spread, governments all around the world made it mandatory to wear masks and encouraged the use of washing hands thoroughly every time they came into contact with something that may be contaminated. And together, these measures worked effectively to minimise the risks of the virus. But, as we explained earlier, this did not guarantee the elimination of the virus but minimised its spread.

Similarly, as we’re witnessing the chilly winters in Pakistan currently, we’ve revamped our wardrobe to suit the needs of the season, summer comforters have been replaced by thick blankets to keep us warm, half sleeves have been replaced by warm full sleeved clothes, hoodies and leather jackets to keep warm. We’ve shifted to having warm, comforting soups instead of ice creams and chilled desserts and hot beverages have become an absolute hit. This too is an example of harm reduction, which prevents us from falling sick of the cold weather, but again, this just reduces the risks that the season brings with it. There still is a chance that one may catch a cold during winter but these preventive measures significantly reduce the risk of it.

The same concept of harm reduction is now being applied to the population that consumes tobacco products involving combustion. Often referred to as Tobacco Harm Reduction (THR), today there are over one billion people in the world who continue to consume combustible tobacco products despite knowing about the consequences. THR recognises that the best option for such people is to quit smoking altogether. But if they continue to smoke, THR advocated the use of potentially reduced-risk alternatives that eliminate the element of combustion completely.

Tobacco harm reduction strategies are proving to be effective in reducing the risks associated with conventional combustible cigarettes globally. And just as we have embraced the use of seatbelts and masks as effective harm-reduction strategies, potentially reduced-risk alternatives are also being embraced by millions around the world and this process can be expedited with the right regulatory framework in place. To learn more about how harm reduction works and can positively impact individuals as well as society at large, stay tuned for our next article.