At Hostile COP10, Threats to Tobacco Harm Reduction Postponed

    The worst threats of the World Health Organization’s COP10 tobacco control conference to global harm reduction access were averted, for now. The WHO’s 10th Conference of the Parties to its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) finally took place in Panama from February 5-10. Originally scheduled for November 2023, it was postponed, apparently because of political unrest in the host country.

    As expected, COP10 represented a closed, hostile environment to supporters of tobacco harm reduction. In countries that already ban vapes, the WHO urges “strong enforcement.” In countries that pursue smoking cessation through harm reduction, it urges medical access only, nicotine limits, taxing vapes and “banning all flavors” in order to “reduce their appeal.”

    Further proposals on the table at COP10, backed by the FCTC Secretariat, were bans on disposable and/or refillable vaping products, and the formal conflation of vaping with smoking, by including vapor—which is not smoke—under the FCTC definition of “smoke.”

    “The exclusionary approach is a glaring testament to the WHO and FCTC’s ongoing opacity and refusal to engage.”

    In pursuit of such goals, COP10 excluded media, consumer groups and tobacco harm reduction (THR) advocates, shutting down rigorous discussion of the most effective ways of quitting smoking. That’s despite the FCTC Secretariat’s claim of “an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health.”

    Nancy Loucas, executive coordinator of the Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates (CAPHRA), was among many to criticize this aspect of the conference. “The exclusionary approach to COP10 is a glaring testament to the WHO and FCTC’s ongoing opacity and refusal to engage in open, evidence-based dialogue on tobacco harm reduction,” she stated.

    COP10 meanwhile welcomed anti-THR advocates with open arms. Bloomberg-funded groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids had a heavy presence, and THR advocates counted approximately 225 anti-THR NGO personnel on the COP10 participation list.

    “All these organizations and individuals will have had the chance to interact, persuade and maybe even bully delegates into agreeing consensus on proposals against harm reduction,” Martin Cullip, a British THR advocate, told Filter. “By contrast, every single [THR] consumer who applied for observer status for COP10 was refused on the false premise that they were part of the tobacco industry.”

    These supposed grounds for exclusion don’t apply to Parties to the FCTC, when countries like India, Malawi, Thailand and Vietnam all either own or hold stakes in tobacco companies.

    But Julio Ruades, a Spanish harm reduction activist and YouTuber, was thrown out of the COP10 reception when he tried to interview people for his channel.

    Dissent from some national delegations meant further draconian measures against safer nicotine products were “frustrated.”

    Cullip, who has written for Filter, is an international fellow with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which organized a counter-event in Panama City, “Good COP,” to platform evidence for THR and the voices of THR consumers, and to scrutinize COP10 as it unfolded.

    Considering rock-bottom expectations, the outcomes of COP10 were far less damaging than they might have been. The conference achieved the required consensus on measures related to advertising and the environment, among other areas. But dissent from some national delegations meant the further draconian measures against safer nicotine products—which would then have been implemented by countries worldwide—were “frustrated,” as Cullip put it, and pushed back to COP11 in 2025.

    It was, Cullip said, “encouraging to see country statements from New Zealand, Philippines, St Kitts and Nevis, and others, going against the WHO’s dismissal of harm reduction and stating that it should be part of the approach for tobacco control.”

    Still, these countries were in the minority, and the United Kingdom’s failure to lend robust support particularly disappointed THR advocates. “The UK shied away from mentioning its Swap to Stop campaign to give a million vapes to people who smoke, which is a central plank of the country’s tobacco control efforts,” Cullip noted.

    “To watch and see my country not stand up for harm reduction punched me in my gut.”

    Canada also stayed silent. “To watch and see my country not stand up for harm reduction punched me in my gut,” Maria Papaioannoya, a spokesperson for the Canadian group Rights 4 Vapers who attended Good COP, told Filter. Like many at the counter-event, Papaioannoya herself quit smoking thanks to vapes. “This fight is so personal.”

    In a week filled with attacks on THR, many advocates took personal offense when Dr. Adriana Blanco Marquizo, head of the FCTC Secretariat, approvingly quoted a line from anti-THR activists in her closing address to COP10:The interests of the tobacco industry, or even of smokers, should never serve as justification for legitimizing products that could send even a single child down the path of addiction.”

    It’s a clear, unconscionable erasure of the needs of a population suffering disease and death in their millions every year.

    This prevailing attitude had already been garishly illustrated when Javier Padilla, Spain’s health minister, brought mocked up “cancer flavor” vape packaging to COP10 and tweeted the image. There is no good evidence that vaping causes cancer, while switching from cigarettes to vapes greatly reduces your cancer risk. Yet Padilla faced no repercussions from COP10 organizers for spreading misinformation.



    “I find it deeply unfortunate that the new Spanish secretary of state for health was cheering such a sensationalist and anti-scientific campaign within COP10,” Carmen Escrig, founder of Spanish Medical Platform for Tobacco Harm Reduction and another Good COP participant, told Filter. “A public authority dedicated to health should be measured and cautious [that] the messages he sends out are supported by quality scientific evidence.”

    Escrig noted that this was part of a campaign launched by the Spanish Association Against Cancer, which has positioned itself against THR.

    Papaioannoya said she was angry that other cancer organizations had not publicly condemned the Spanish Association Against Cancer. “Cancer should never be weaponized like that.”

    THR advocates can feel relieved that imminent threats have subsided, but should start preparing for COP11 right now. The WHO and its Bloomberg allies will regroup.”

    But the stunt fits the context of a conference where delegates were also told that there’s no evidence vaping can help with smoking cessation, as Cullip pointed out. “That conclusion could only be reached by excluding the Cochrane Living Review from [COP10 organizers’] reports,” he said, “which concluded that there is ‘high certainty’ evidence that more people stop smoking with vapes than with licensed NRT products, which the WHO endorses.”

    Escrig said she found the “lack of transparency” and “authoritarian behavior” of COP10 organizers “disturbing.” And any pushback took place in an intimidating environment, with many armed police visible in Panama City. There were reports of pro-THR leaflets being confiscated by police at small side events, and local journalists investigated alleged vaping in hotels, which is illegal in Panama.


    “We could see how the police intimidated and demanded the data of simple YouTubers for reporting at the door of COP10,” Escrig said.

    COP11, which no country has yet offered to host, is due to take place in 2025, when the threat of an escalated global crackdown on tobacco harm reduction will resume.

    THR advocates can feel relieved that imminent threats have subsided, but should start preparing for COP11 right now, rather than later,” Cullip said. “Despite many Parties expressing common sense on harm reduction, the WHO’s ongoing stance was clearly communicated by [senior WHO official] Ruediger Krech in his opening speech to COP10: ‘The wellbeing society has to be a nicotine- and tobacco-free society.’”

    “The WHO and its Bloomberg allies will regroup,” Cullip concluded. “Consumers should make themselves ready to fight again.”



    Photographs by Filter

    The Taxpayers Protection Alliance made a one-off donation to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, to support travel to Good COP. Filter’s Editorial Independence Policy applies.

    • Kiran is a tobacco harm reduction fellow for Filter. She is a writer and journalist who has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph, I Paper and the Times, among many others. Her book, I Can Hear the Cuckoo, was published by Gaia in 2023. She lives in Wales.

      Kiran’s fellowship is supported by an independently administered tobacco harm reduction scholarship from Knowledge-Action-Change—an organization that has separately provided restricted grants and donations to Filter.

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