The just-ended ninth Conference of Parties (COP) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) held in the Netherlands did not disappoint.
As was largely expected, the global health body stuck to its guns by doubling down on its commitment to mobilise a multi-million-dollar fund “to strengthen global tobacco control measures”.
COP9 ran from November 8-13, while the meeting of parties (MOP) was held in two days to November 17.
Perhaps the most emphatic voice of WHO’s prohibitionist stance towards tobacco came from director-general Dr Tedros Gebreyesus, who fell short of describing it as a virus.
“If tobacco was a virus, it would long ago have been called a pandemic and the world would marshal every resource to stop it. Instead, it is a multi-billion-dollar business profiting from death and disease,” he said in his opening remarks at MOP2.
“We still have a long way to go, and tobacco companies will continue to use every trick in
the book to defend the gigantic profits they make from peddling their deadly wares.” COP9, which was attended by 161 of the 182 Parties to the FCTC, also adopted the “Declaration on WHO FCTC and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic”, which essentially declares war on the tobacco industry.
The declaration stresses the need to protect public health policy “from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry.
The increase in tobacco taxes was viewed as an integral part in the pandemic recovery
efforts. On its part, Zimbabwe last week increased excise duty on cigarettes from 20 percent and
US$5 per 1 000 cigarettes to 25 percent plus US$5 per 1 000. The envisaged funds will be used to fight non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
But scientists, researchers and tobacco industry experts had, however, expected the outcome, as WHO, which is largely funded and supported by American-based Bloomberg Philanthropies, continues to shut out alternative voices pushing for harm-reduction products.
Research has shown that tobacco harm reduction products significantly reduce death and
the disease normally associated with smoking. An expert independent evidence review published by Public Health England in August 2015 indicated that e-cigarettes in particular are 95 percent less harmful than smoking and have the potential to help smokers quit.
Vapes and tobacco-heated products are similarly effective.
It is estimated that eight million people die every year due to smoking-related diseases.
Speaking at a recent Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) Diginar, which preceded the COP9 meeting, Dr Kgosi Letlape — the former president of the World Medical Association — said WHO had seemingly become a “mouthpiece of the personal beliefs of a billionaire (Michael Bloomberg).”
“We have a duty to ensure that it does its job properly without fear or favour,” said Dr Letlape, who is also the current president of the Africa Harm Reduction Alliance.
“If the world is frantic about five million deaths caused by the coronavirus in the past two years, it must be doubly frantic about the 16 million deaths in two years related to smoking,” he said.
It is high time the FCTC actively considers alternative products, he added, in order to stop the needless loss of lives.
Director-general of the UK Vaping Industry Association Mr John Dunne believes the FCTC is becoming “a threat to global public health”.
“Despite the treaty’s commitment to harm reduction, the WHO and FCTC have never embraced e-cigarettes or alternative products but have instead called for excessive regulation,” he told the VPASA diginar.
“The FCTC secretariat and COP meetings are not fit for purpose. In their relentless opposition of vaping and other reduced risk products, they have become a threat to global public health.”
He also accused the COP of being notoriously secretive, as it is reluctant to involve the media, tobacco industry, civil society and consumer groups in its key discussions.
Mr Dunne said the UK, which has successfully integrated vaping into its public policies on tobacco harm reduction, needed to add its voice in promoting an evidence-based approach.
But, WHO seems hell-bent on banning tobacco.
“Over the last three decades, tobacco control has become more prohibitionist in its focus. I guess the focus of the FCTC has similarly become extremely prohibitionist, so much now that they are looking at eliminating the tobacco plant altogether from agricultural use,” observed Professor Marewa Glover, director of the New Zealand-based Independent Centre of Research and Excellence.
The island country recently passed the Smoke-Free Environments and Regulated Products Act, which came into force on August 11 this year.
Although it bans products such as snus and oral nicotine pouches, it allows the restricted use of vaping products.
The new regulatory framework, according to Prof Glover, encourages people to shift from smoking to vaping and discourages non-smokers to start vaping.
Overall, it is aimed at ensuring that those who are already vaping will eventually quit.
However, prohibitionist lobbying is still underway to change the law.
Mr Clive Bates, the director of London-based Counterfactual Consulting, says WHO’s s continued obsession with banning tobacco, particularly in low-and middle-income countries where smoking is prevalent and pervasive, is both unworkable and unhelpful.
“So, I want to stress that this prohibitionist agenda that the Bloomberg-funded entities and their proxies at WHO want to foist on low- to middle-income countries is completely baseless, completely
counterproductive and will work against public health in all low- and middle-income countries,” he said.
Activists say they will continue to lobby for harm reduction alternatives in order to reduce relatively high deaths and diseases associated with smoking.