With the constant deluge of pandemic-related coverage, it’s easy to forget that tobacco smoking continues to kill over 8 million people worldwide every year. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped shadowy taxpayer-funded bureaucrats at the World Health Organization from pursuing prohibitionist ideology at the expense of reducing harms and improving the health of the world’s smokers.
Their newly released Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)’s 2021 virtual Conference of the Parties (COP9) agenda reveals that discussions on incorporating reduced-harm alternatives to cigarettes, such as vapes and heat-not-burn tobacco products, in public health policy will be deferred for another two years. This is despite overwhelming, internationally-recognised evidence that vapes are at least 95% less harmful than conventional tobacco products like cigarettes when it comes to satiating the nicotine cravings of smokers.
Sure, vapes and products that release nicotine by heating tobacco instead of burning it aren’t totally harmless. And it’s certainly best for health if individuals neither smoke nor vape or use these products. But tobacco harm reduction is based on the well-established understanding that smokers “smoke for the nicotine but die from the [carcinogenic] tar” that’s released when the tobacco leaf burns. Evidently, those who struggle to overcome their smoking addiction are better off if they can do less damage to themselves by obtaining nicotine through systems that avoid tobacco combustion.
But the problems with the FCTC run even deeper. Its activities and dealings face little scrutiny, with meetings taking place in secrecy and without the opportunity for many affected stakeholders to have a say. This is troubling since the conventions play a pivotal role in drafting international law intended to “provide a framework for tobacco control measures to be implemented by the Parties at the national, regional, and international levels.” Blanket bans on media and public access to convention meetings also prevent stakeholders and the public at large from having a voice in the deliberations or even monitoring conference activities.
One of the problems is that even experts, stakeholder groups, NGOs and others with legitimate concerns or information, are not only excluded from the deliberations but are prevented under current framework recommendations, from even speaking to international negotiators or domestic lawmakers- if they have even a tangential association with tobacco companies. For example, international farming associations that represent many poor farmers in third-world nations selling tobacco to survive are prevented from providing input even on their transition away from the cigarette production chain. In a particularly perverse example, even international law enforcement agency Interpol was denied an opportunity to give input in combatting the illegal tobacco trade because it cooperates with some tobacco companies to track illegal shipments. Similarly, pro-harm reduction organisations, including vaper advocacy groups, are denied a chance to give input even though nicotine vapers have the most to lose from laws that force them back to more harmful cigarettes- as the FCTC’s ongoing global push for restrictions on vapes would.
That these rules are based purely on arbitrary ideology rather than public health or social benefits is evident in that the FCTC even requires states to restrict tobacco companies’ corporate social responsibility activities- regardless of their nature or benefit. The Convention Secretariat has previously condemned the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for simply recognising that British American Tobacco created some work opportunities for refugees, and even condemned Japan Tobacco International’s collaboration with the International Labour Organisation for “develop[ing] and implement activities that progressively eliminate child labour and address conditions that drive tobacco farmers to engage children in hazardous work.”
Even the UN Global Compact’s acceptance of funding from these companies for advancing sustainable development has been criticised by the FCTC. It’s entirely possible to attack tobacco companies for producing dangerous and addictive products while also acknowledging the benefits of specific activities that fall outside their business, and making it clear that the latter doesn’t negate the former.
By contrast to the restrictions imposed on some stakeholders, favoured NGOs that promote the universal and rapid eradication of all tobacco products without considering economic impacts on farmers, or the value of reduced-harm alternatives in improving public health, have participated in FCTC proceedings. The WHO is also a beneficiary of funding from billionaire anti-vaping advocate and failed US presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s lobbying groups continue to push for reduced-harm products to be kept out of the hands of smokers in low-income Asian countries with some of the world’s highest smoking rates- putting public health at risk.
WHO bureaucrats and delegates are entitled to their personal opinions on tobacco control. But they’re also meant to represent all of us worldwide who fund the WHO with our tax dollars, and should make decisions based on objective benefit for public health and in proper consideration of the stakeholders whom they impact, rather than on prohibitionist ideology. If they won’t abandon their unscientific, irrational and immoral opposition to tobacco harm reduction, then we should question the levels of taxpayer funding they receive.
Satya Marar is a policy professional who works from either Sydney or Washington DC (viruses and governments permitting) and author of Tobacco Harm Reduction: A formula to save 500,000 Australian lives.
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