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Donors distort WHO’s tobacco control policy, say experts

Consumer groups have accused the World Health Organization of being used by big pharmaceutical companies, charity foundations funded by billionaires and state-controlled tobacco companies to perpetuate cigarette trade by driving less harmful alternatives to the black market, leaving more than a billion smokers exposed to serious health risks from smoking.

Samrat Chowdhery of the Association of Vapers India said that while the WHO was predicting that the number of smokers globally would remain at more than a billion over the next five years, the UN health body was not doing anything to change its ineffective prohibitionist policy.

“This projection should have made the WHO realize that the current approaches are not working,” Chowdhery, who is also the president of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations said during the Voices4Vape webinar on September 26, 2020. A replay of the webinar is available here

Chowdhery said the WHO continued to ignore the tobacco harm reduction strategy or the use of less harmful smoke-free alternatives such as electronic cigarettes, heat-not-burn tobacco products, and snus because of its prohibitionist policy with influences from people like US billionaire Michael Bloomberg.

The Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates and other consumer advocacy groups organized Voices4Vape where experts in tobacco control, public health policy, government policy and independent vaping industry asked the WHO to embrace tobacco harm reduction as a strategy in addressing the smoking epidemic that kills 20,000 smokers a day.

Clive Bates, a global THR advocate and former director of the UK’s Action on Smoking and Health, said the WHO's prohibitionist policy was particularly directed at innovative nicotine products.

"The WHO and the parties to Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and many of the non-governmental organizations involved have taken on a prohibitionist approach. We are constantly seeing WHO pushing prohibition—prohibition not of dangerous cigarettes that cause all these health problems, but prohibition of less harmful alternatives such as vaping, smoke-free tobacco products, heated tobacco products, and anything new or novel," Bates said.

"What prohibition does is to provide protection for the cigarette trade. It favors the black market and it works against sensible regulation of the products that you are trying to prohibit.  It prevents you from regulating e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and nicotine pouches properly," he said. "They think that banning something solves the problem.  What they are really doing is prohibiting the safer option, not making progress toward a tobacco-free goal."

Bates said the WHO is also allowing vested interests from state-controlled tobacco companies that are members of FCTC, charity foundations established by billionaires, and well-funded non-government organizations to influence its tobacco control policy.

Bates particularly identified US billionaire and former presidential aspirant Michael Bloomberg as the one "putting millions and millions of dollars into the system, funding WHO and networks of non-governmental organizations to prohibit vaping products." 

"He [Bloomberg] comes in with a giant vested interest himself, but laden with billions of dollars and aggressive public health-based marketing campaign, tries to get vaping banned. The WHO and many intermediary organizations are taking money from a prohibitionist. They do not realize what a conflict of interest it is.  It is a giant conflict of interest, massively distorting the debate on the future of tobacco and nicotine policy, but is completely unaccountable,” said Bates.

"Bloomberg's money has created a giant network of fake civil societies that are essentially front organizations for one man who has some very strong ideas about what to do on tobacco policy. He is a financial services billionaire who knows nothing about the subject of tobacco control policy," Bates said.

Consumer groups asked governments in the Asia-Pacific region to instead create sensible tobacco harm reduction legislation by removing the deeply entrenched interest groups, often operating within the governments themselves. They said many Asian nations that are signatories to FCTC own their own cigarette manufacturing industries, which generate handsome profits and taxes. 

Nancy Loucas, executive coordinator of CAPHRA, also called on policy-makers and health authorities to look at scientific evidence showing that smoke-free nicotine products are dramatically safer than combustible cigarettes and have in fact helped millions quit smoking.

“As consumer advocates, we fight for the right to have the facts, the science, the truth be heard, acknowledged and utilized by public health policy-makers and by government. It is an uphill battle, but we continue to do it because we know we are fighting the good fight.  Consumers advocates fight for the right of millions of adult smokers in Asia Pacific to have a choice to use safer nicotine products,” said Loucas.

Nancy Loucas said New Zealand has an opportunity to become the first country in the region to have a regulatory framework for vaping and other smoke-free products. “We will probably have the first proper regulatory framework in the region, and we know we have to get it right because it will be the precedent in the region,” Loucas said.  

David Sweanor, chair of the advisory committee of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, said THR has proven its effectiveness in reducing smoking incidence in several countries.

“We have already seen examples around the world that the biggest declines in cigarette smoking are in countries that have available alternatives,” Sweanor said.

Revised on October 2, 2020

Topics: WHO , tobacco harm reduction , Bloomberg , FCTC , smoking
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