One of the most important meetings of the World Health Organization (WHO) recently took place tenuous in Geneva, where the future health of millions of people may have been decided behind closed doors.
The meeting was the ninth Conference of the Parties (COP9) of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), where authorities from around the world come together to discuss health guidelines regarding tobacco and smoking. Discussions are famous secret: Journalists are not allowed to attend these interviews, nor are members of the public. Even the 2018 internet livestream of the event was to cut at the start of the procedure.
In addition, a key component of tobacco control has been largely absent from this year’s discussions. For all the talk about how to curb the current tobacco epidemic, already responsible for some 700,000 deaths one year in Europe, and countless others around the world – the vital role of reduced-risk nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes, in reducing smoking rates would have been largely absent of the conference, the WHO having decided to postpone discussions on tobacco harm reduction until COP10, which will take place in 2023.
In fact, the WHO has remained firmly opposite electronic cigarettes for years. From the COP4 meeting in Uruguay in 2010, WHO called Member States to ban vaping in public places and to impose restrictions on the marketing of electronic cigarette products.
In the decade since WHO’s initial response to electronic cigarettes, the benefits of harm reduction approaches have been widely studied and approved by a wide range of organizations. Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians in Great Britain both have affirmed that the risks associated with vaping are at least 95% lower than the risks associated with smoking; the United States National Academies of Science Engineering and Mathematics conducted a review of the evidence to finally conclude âElectronic cigarettes are likely to be much less harmful than combustible tobacco cigarettes. “
In light of this, WHO’s unwavering opposition to even considering the benefits of harm reduction approaches from nicotine use are a public health puzzle at best. At COP7 in New Delhi, India, CCLAT called Member States “to consider applying regulatory measures … to prohibit or restrict the manufacture, import, distribution, display, sale and use of [alternative nicotine products]. âThe WHO policy position on electronic cigarettes has remained unchanged since.
To make matters worse, the WHO has insisted on celebrating efforts to reduce the use of e-cigarettes, despite the increase evidence that they can be one of the best ways for adult smokers to quit the habit. According to a review in clinical studies, electronic cigarettes are very effective in helping smokers quit smoking. Indeed, they have been shown to be much more effective than the pharmacological nicotine substitutes that the WHO and anti-vaping organizations like Bloomberg Philanthropies have paradoxically. promoted.
Meanwhile, the controversial WHO given a major award earlier this year to Dr Harsh Vardhan, an official with India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, for his “special recognition of tobacco control” after leading efforts to to prohibit electronic cigarettes in India. “His leadership was instrumental in the 2019 national legislation to ban electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products” tweeted Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Secretary-General of WHO, at the time of the award ceremony.
Harm reduction advocates, however, have taken a different perspective, criticizing the ban as “personal goalâIn the fight against smoking in India. Some have even argued that the real motivations for the ban had nothing to do with the flurry of so-called “health warnings” against e-cigarettes. “The only beneficiaries of this ban appear to be the cigarette manufacturers who have found protection against substitutes, which was reflected in their share price rise on news of the ban.” slammed activist Samrat Chowdhery.
With over 100 million smokers and a million deaths attributed to smoking each year, the stakes could not be higher for Indian health officials; neglecting the potential benefits of e-cigarettes will likely only set key health milestones even further out of reach. Indeed, thanks to the international influence of the WHO, the organization myopia on risk reduction will certainly have far-reaching consequences for public health policies around the world.
This is particularly dangerous in areas where disinformation on electronic cigarettes is already widespread. In Europe, for example, surveys have shown that most consumers are woefully unaware of the facts about electronic cigarettes. The percentage of Europeans who think e-cigarettes are harmful to their health has increased alarmingly from 27% in 2012 to 65% in 2020. Even more worrying, a study found that 59% of Europeans wrongly thinks that vaping is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than smoking.
These inaccurate perceptions have consequences: some 47% of European citizens are now in favor of draconian measures such as banning all flavored liquids for e-cigarettes, a measure some European countries, such as Hungary and Finland, have already taken. implemented and others, including the Netherlands, are planning to perform. Evidence of a similar flavor ban in San Francisco suggest that the measure may have led more high school students to start smoking conventional cigarettes, when it would almost certainly have caused some adult consumers to resume smoking. Yet many politicians and consumers seem unaware of these disturbing effects.
The negative impact of these inaccurate perceptions about adult health decisions is impossible to quantify. Recent research shows that current smokers are discouraged from switching to e-cigarettes even after “brief exposure” to misinformation online. The need for carefully researched and research-informed communications on the part of WHO has therefore never been greater.
Whatever WHO’s intentions, pushing governments to adopt ill-advised policies and reflect the organization’s staunch opposition to harm reduction strategies will only backfire. As consumers are pushed back to smoking, the consequences for public health will be devastating.