The WHO Gambled Behind Closed Doors With 200 Million Lives

November 16, 2021

Two United Nations Conferences of Parties (COP) took place last week—both with the ostensible goal of saving lives. But the contrast couldn’t be starker. While COP 26 involved myriad relevant stakeholders and focused on transparency in seeking to address the climate crisis, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) COP 9, meant to address smoking-related harms, ended up once again being closed to the public, with any dissenting opinions excluded.

This is a massive problem, because  COP 9’s recommendations—which on this occasion included pledging millions to strengthen traditional tobacco control measures—affect millions of people. If they would listen to science and the voices of countless people who use nicotine, hundreds of millions of lives could be saved.

The fact that these critical discussions have, year after year, taken place behind closed doors—amid 8 million annual smoking-related deaths—is a disgrace.

Vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking and one of the most effective smoking cessation tools. Nevertheless, the World Health Organization’s FCTC position doesn’t seem to care about facts. This is astonishing, when before the conference started, 100 highly respected scientists and experts urged the WHO to “change its hostile stance on tobacco harm reduction.” Like nicotine consumers, these experts were ignored.

The fact that these critical discussions have, year after year, taken place behind closed doors—amid 8 million annual smoking-related deaths—is a disgrace. Despite the best efforts of the international tobacco control establishment, around 100 million people already use the harm reduction alternatives to cigarettes—like vapes, snus and heated tobacco products—that many governments restrict or ban. We have felt the benefits for ourselves. Yet we are locked out of the building.

Rightly, consumers around the world are fighting to be heard, no longer willing to passively endure bad decisions being made about them without them. The World Vapers’ Alliance works to give vapers a voice, and we brought their stories to the decision-makers. But when we arrived with these testimonies to protest in the parking lot outside the WHO building in Geneva, Switzerland on November 10, security showed up within 30 seconds and told us to leave.

If the WHO seriously wants to reduce smoking, the alternatives to smoking must be attractive for smokers. Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, the member of the European Parliament (MEP) responsible for Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, made this point recently: “We are trying to match the interest of reducing the risk with eradicating the risk which is sometimes utopian. Reducing the risk is more pragmatic.”

Policies around tobacco and vaping need to be smart to succeed. Research shows that with the right regulatory incentives, 200 million people around the world could switch from smoking to vaping in a few years. It is past time for policymakers to put practical solutions center stage, instead of a failing “quit or die” ideology.

Vaping is among the most efficient methods to give up smoking for good: This is proven by science, and by the millions who have quit in this way. But for this path to succeed to the greatest possible extent, vaping needs to be permitted and easily available. It needs to be affordable, with taxation policies to ensure that vaping is much cheaper than smoking. People need to receive adequate and accurate information about the benefits of switching. And vapers need access to the variety of flavors that most adults choose—flavors that don’t remind them of the taste of cigarettes.

Further curtailing any of these rights, which are already denied in many places, will see many people going back to smoking, putting a stop to the progress that has already been made.

A generation will feel the tragic effects of the agency’s intransigence.

“This is about creating a secure bubble to allow a certain kind of groupthink to flourish unhindered by reality, pragmatism and result”, summarized leading tobacco harm reduction advocate Clive Bates of the COP 9 meeting.

It is shameful that the WHO blithely continues on a hostile track against vaping and other reduced-risk alternatives, and a generation will feel the tragic effects of the agency’s intransigence. At the moment, people who switch away from smoking are doing so despite the world’s political leaders.

Is it too much to hope that COP10, in two years’ time, will open its doors to nicotine users and scrutiny, and be conducted on a transparent and practical basis? From where we stand now, it feels unlikely. Yet with hundreds of millions of lives at stake, we must keep using our voices to shout.



Photograph of the WHO building by United States Mission Geneva via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Michael Landl

Michael is the director of the World Vapers’ Alliance. He is an experienced policy professional and passionate vaper. He studied at the University of St. Gallen International Affairs and worked for several public policy outlets, as well in the German Parliament. He lives in Vienna, Austria.

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