Professor Gerry Stimson Receives Award

Posted 4th July 2023 by Dave Cross
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Harm reduction advocate Professor Gerry Stimson received an award marking a lifetime’s dedication to evidence-based public health at the Global Forum on Nicotine, held in Warsaw. The Award honours the memory of UK psychiatrist and research scientist Michael Russell, a pioneer in the study of tobacco dependence and smoking cessation and was presented in recognition of a lifetime’s commitment to evidence-based public health interventions.

One of the world’s leading harm reduction advocates has received the 2023 Michael Russell Award at this year’s Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN).

Professor Gerry Stimson, Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London, was presented with the award at the tenth annual GFN conference, which concluded today in Warsaw, Poland.

Formerly the executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association, Professor Stimson, who founded the Global Forum on Nicotine alongside Paddy Costall, was given this honour in recognition of a lifetime’s commitment to evidence-based public health interventions.

The decision to award the honour to Professor Stimson was taken without his knowledge and is intended to mark a lifelong career driven by a passion for promoting better health outcomes for all. He received the accolade at the event which sees hundreds of delegates gathering in the Polish capital alongside more than 70 international experts on tobacco and nicotine.

The award is presented each year at the Global Forum on Nicotine in memory of Professor Michael Russell, a psychiatrist and research scientist, who was a pioneer in the study of tobacco dependence and the development of treatments to help smokers quit. Professor Russell identified that while pure nicotine carries little health risk, it is the main reason why people smoke. This understanding led him to write the widely quoted line “people smoke for nicotine, but they die from the tar”.

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Professor Russell is universally acknowledged as the person who did most to lay the foundations for tobacco harm reduction. This is a potentially life-saving intervention that offers users of high-risk tobacco products, like cigarettes and some oral tobaccos, the choice to switch to a range of safer nicotine products that pose fewer risks to their health, including nicotine vapes (e-cigarettes), snus, heated tobacco products and nicotine pouches.

A public health social scientist, Gerry Stimson undertook his research training in the Addiction Research Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry in London in the late 1960s. And from the very start of his working life, in the then new field of ‘medical sociology’, he learned about the significance of the social sciences for the understanding of health behaviour, in particular the importance of the perspective of the patient. This knowledge would continue to inform his approach to research for many years to come.

The early part of Professor Stimson’s career was focused on research with people who use heroin and other opiates. In the early 1980s, as concerns grew about the emergence of HIV/AIDS, he was commissioned by the UK government to evaluate the experimental needle and syringe exchange programme in England and Scotland. Professor Stimson’s work showed that harm reduction was successful in reducing HIV infections. The subsequent adoption of drugs harm reduction means the UK maintains one of the lowest rates of HIV infection among drug injectors in the world.

An innovator who held senior positions at a number of universities, Professor Stimson established the Centre for Research on Drugs and Health Behaviour, and the Department of Social Science and Medicine, both at Imperial College London.

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By the late 2000s, while still working in HIV prevention, human rights and drug harm reduction, Professor Stimson first learned about vaping. It was immediately clear to him that this new technology could offer a harm reduction solution for smoking, providing a safer product that enabled safer behaviour.

Just as he had understood the importance of the patient’s perspective when working in ‘medical sociology’ at the start of his career, Professor Stimson quickly realised consumers were central to the success of tobacco harm reduction, and his subsequent work has focused on providing users of high- risk tobaccos with clear and accurate information about the potential health benefits of making the choice to switch to safer nicotine products.

To do this, he set up Knowledge•Action•Change (K•A•C), a private sector agency working in the field of public health and harm reduction. He also established both the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction (GSTHR) and the Tobacco Harm Reduction Scholarship Programme (THRSP).

He also launched the Global Forum on Nicotine. Uniquely for a conference in this field, GFN is open to everyone active in the field of in tobacco harm reduction, with consumers, policymakers, academics, scientists and public health experts attending alongside representatives from manufacturers and distributors of safer nicotine products, with the intention being to drive the approach forward through multi-stakeholder engagement. The central role that GFN affords consumers reflects Professor Stimson’s mantra that tobacco harm reduction must leave no one behind.

Alex Wodak, a former President of the International Harm Reduction Association, who presented Professor Stimson with his award, said: “Gerry’s contribution to tobacco harm reduction has been immense. Having spent many years making a huge impact in national and international drug harm reduction, he was able to transfer all that had been learnt from advocacy for drug harm reduction into the new and ever-changing world of safer nicotine products. Gerry has proven to be a wise and inspirational leader in these fields. He initially thought safer nicotine products would prove to be a well-accepted response to a global smoking epidemic that kills roughly the equivalent of the population of Switzerland every year, though the following decades have been anything but an easy ride. Yet, safer nicotine products have already captured about 10 per cent of the international smoking market in less than twenty years. And, despite facing ferocious headwinds and fierce criticism along the way, Gerry has never swayed from his mission to help users of high-risk nicotine to improve their own health, and his work will continue to have an effect on millions of people’s lives around the world for many years to come. No one has done more for drug and tobacco harm reduction than Gerry. Imagine how many lives in how many countries Gerry has saved!"

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Jessica Harding, Programme Director for the Global Forum on Nicotine, said: "From the very beginning, Gerry has been a fantastic champion for the consumers of safer nicotine products. He was on the front line when vapers went to Brussels in 2013 to successfully call on the EU not to regulate vapes as medical products and he has continued to fight for the rights of the 112 million people who are using vapes, nicotine pouches, snus and heated tobacco products. His career has been devoted to harm reduction and this award is well-deserved recognition for the immense contribution he has made, promoting the scientific evidence that is helping to convince users of high-risk tobaccos to switch to alternatives that are less harmful to their health."

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 Dave Cross
Article by Dave Cross
Freelance writer, salad destroyer and live culture convert.
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