Yusuff Adebayo Adebisi
Yusuff Adebayo Adebisi

A drive to reduce the harm caused by smoking in Africa has led to international recognition for one of the Tobacco Harm Reduction Scholarship Programme’s graduates. A young pharmacist with a passion for improving global public health, Yusuff Adebayo Adebisi won a Diana Award for his work to raise awareness about the benefits of safer nicotine products (SNP) in his home country of Nigeria. The Diana Award is a prestigious accolade for young people working in social action or humanitarian work established in memory of Diana, Princess of Wales. Now an Enhanced Scholar, Yusuff plans to continue his work by establishing a Tobacco Harm Reduction research hub in Nigeria.

Low and middle-income countries are home to 80 per cent of the world’s smokers and carry the biggest burden of death and disease associated with combustible and dangerous oral tobacco. During his Pharmacy course, Yusuff saw first-hand the impact smoking was having on those of his patients who were suffering with lung cancer. He wanted to help, but was unsure how to until a chance encounter on his phone.

“I got a message on a WhatsApp group suggesting people should apply for the Tobacco Harm Reduction Scholarship Programme. At the time I was new to tobacco harm reduction, so I clicked on the link. I started to find out more and was immediately interested in what Knowledge•Action•Change was doing. Everyone knows it is very difficult for people to quit smoking. Many have tried and failed a number of times. So why not try to get them to switch to something that is safer compared to cigarettes, something that can help them stop? That is what inspired my desire to learn more about tobacco harm reduction and continues to motivate the work I’m doing now.”

While still a student at the University of Ibadan, Yusuff successfully applied to join the Programme. His first project raised awareness of tobacco harm reduction approaches in Nigeria, with outreach to, and training for, other pharmacists, healthcare professionals and fellow emerging global health experts. He also forged links with drug policy advocacy groups in Nigeria. While harm reduction approaches are increasingly offered for illicit drug users to improve individual health and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, little attention is paid to people’s damaging use of combustible tobacco.

“Many people in the world know about safer nicotine products. They know what tobacco harm reduction can do for them and they know the benefits. But in Africa, only a small number of people know about them. There’s a real inequality of information and that has a big impact because people from this part of the world are already dying more from smoking related diseases compared to those in higher income countries. That’s why telling people about tobacco harm reduction in Africa is so important, and that awareness can’t stop. We need to keep letting people know more about these life-saving products.”

At the age of just 24, Yusuff has already published more than 50 articles in academic journals including The Lancet, Tropical Medicine and Health, Journal of Global Health, American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Health Security, Conflict and Health, and Global Health Research and Policy among others. He plans to publish a number of articles based on the work of his two Scholarship projects and he says studies and reports on tobacco harm reduction have proven to be powerful tools during his advocacy work.

“There is unfortunately a lot of misinformation out there that you have to deal with. When I’ve met with people to discuss safer nicotine products, some will raise concerns, saying they’ve heard about vaping devices killing people in the US. To reassure these people, I share science papers to show them it was not the devices that were at fault, it was the drugs and black market products being put in them. When I then provide people with reliable information about safer nicotine products and show them reports like those produced by the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction and Public Health England, they want to embrace them. You just need to start these conversations.

During his Scholarships, Yusuff has shared his knowledge about tobacco harm reduction with officials but he knows it can be challenging to bring about change. “It’s very difficult to influence the political will. Instead, one of the things I’m doing through my projects is to enlighten the young people of Nigeria because we are the future. We are the next generation of policy makers so if we can be knowledgeable about tobacco harm reduction, then one day, when we are in positions of power, we’ll be able to make changes. It’s going to be a gradual process, but the future starts now and we need to invest in it.”

Looking forwards, Yusuff plans to conduct a review study to assess what is known about tobacco harm reduction across Africa. “I want to find out whether there are any local challenges or barriers to tobacco harm reduction that need to be addressed. It is so important to collect evidence from an African context, because much of the research to date has been carried out in countries with strong public health structures, well-established research groups and on a limited range of populations.”

Yusuff has ambitious aims for the future but he can also reflect on a remarkable few years in tobacco harm reduction, topped off with his Diana Award. “It was an incredible honour to receive this award for my work in advancing health research. It’s even more special because the recipient doesn’t work towards it, rather they demonstrate their suitableness through their work. I was nominated by my Mentor, Dr Don-Eliseo Lucero-Prisno of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Founder of Global Health Focus. This achievement makes me motivated and super excited to do more.”

While his journey with the Programme still has some distance left to run, Yusuff hopes others will follow in his footsteps. “The Scholarship has allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I now have the opportunity to advance my knowledge on tobacco harm reduction and contribute to making an impact within my home country. In addition to this, the Scholarship has allowed me to develop my research interests in the field of tobacco harm reduction. I strongly recommend this Scholarship for everyone who wants to make a meaningful impact where it matters. The programme is life-changing.