WHO under fire for advancing draconian laws on tobacco control

The World Health Organization (WHO) has come under fire for advancing and crafting ‘draconian laws’ on tobacco control which are allegedly intended to ‘kill’ tobacco smokers, more so in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), which largely depend on tobacco production.

Renowned global governance experts and human rights defenders argue that WHO policies on tobacco control are dictatorial and run counter to the promotion of social and economic rights of LMICs while “killing smokers with combustible cigarettes”.

The experts expressed these sentiments during the diginar, which the South Africa-based Vaping Products Association (VPASA) organized ahead of the Conference of Parties 9 (COP9).

Celebrated South African ophthalmologist and president of the Africa Medical Association, Dr. Kgosi Letlape, accused WHO of double standards saying it is mindboggling to hear the World Health Organization championing bans on the use of any novel tobacco products on the pretext that they are not evaluated. Yet, the same organization has allowed LMICs, largely African countries, to consume foreign-made vaccines without subjecting them to laboratory tests or evaluation of medical efficacy.

Dr. Kgosi Letlape – President of the Africa Medical Association

“Why have we not been advised to ban the vaccines because most of us don’t have the capacity to evaluate them? Most of the countries in Africa have relied on the work that is done by other regulators like what is done in the UK and what is done in the European Union in terms of those authorities evaluating those products. Why are we given different advice on tobacco products.  Is it because of presumed incompetence?” Letlape asked.

Citing his country of origin, South Africa, Letlape lamented the tendency by the South African Government to play a ‘good disciple’ of every policy that comes from WHO.

“If you look at our proposed Tobacco Bill, it basically says we are followers. We accept as gospel what comes from the WHO. It opens with a precautionary principle then begins to state that any tobacco product that aims to replace smoking will be viewed in the same way as cigarettes – there will be no distinction. If it produces a smoke or a cloud, it will be treated the way we treat combustible cigarettes. Effectively, all the things that have come out of the CFTC in terms of banning indoor use, restriction of marketing, etc, will be applied to all the products that come; that are nicotine alternatives to combustible cigarettes.”

“That’s the basic attitude of our legislation to the extent that even providing information on any of these new products can only be done with ministerial consent in terms of the proposed Bill,” he said.

Letlape challenged African governments to stop just taking orders from WHO, arguing that it is high time Africa chose its own destination on health issues.

In his presentation, the Director of United Kingdom Vaping Industry Association and Vaping Advocacy expert, John Dunnie, who has a strong background and reputation in European electronic cigarette industry, observed that despite having the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) treaty’s commitments on tobacco harm reduction in place, WHO and FCTC have never embraced E-Cigarettes but have instead called for excess regulation.

Dunnie argued that FCTC Secretariat and the COP meetings are therefore not really fit for their purposes.

“In their relentless opposition of vaping and other reduced risk products, they have become a threat to global health. COP meetings are notoriously secretive. Journalists and the public are technically allowed in as observers under strict conditions, but are thrown out on the first day.

“Vapers have little chance of being allowed to attend COP9, which is evident in the UK with applications by consumer groups NNA (New Nicotine Alliance) and INNCO just recently being rejected while anti-vaping organizations like the University of Lush being allowed,” he said.

Dunnie said their only hope is to put pressure on elected representatives to demand that the FCTC make COP more transparent and to take a more evidence-based approach, which is the case at COP26 on environment.

He contended that -Cigarettes are not tobacco products, and it is debatable whether they fall within the FCTC’s remit at all.

On why the United Kingdom (UK) wields more power in the tobacco control regulations Dunnie said that the UK as the global leader in tobacco control has been an active contributor to the implementation of the FCTC, including provision of financial support to the FCCC2030. A total of £50 million.

More recently, the UK has also pledged to become the WHO’s largest state donor, with 30 percent funding increase to £340 million in UK funding over the next four years.

“In addition to this the UK approaches to vaping and novel tobacco products are at the forefront of efforts to curb non-communicable disease (NCDs). The UK has unique opportunity to champion its progressive, successful and evidence-based domestic policies on tobacco harm reduction on a global stage. The UK is also a world leader in this field and must fully embrace this transition, whereas in previous years the UK’s delegation to FCTC COP has been obligated to the bow to the consensus of the European Union’s post Brexit,” he said.

In her presentation titled “Tobacco Harm Reduction: Roles of ENDS”, Professor Marewa Glover of New Zealand disclosed that her country was one of the first countries to pass a comprehensive smoke free environment law in 1990.

Glover said back then, tobacco control was focused on reducing harm of smoking and of being exposed to second hand smoke, but over the last three decades tobacco control has become more and more inflexible.

“The focus of the convention on tobacco control has similarly become extremely prudish, so much so that they are looking at eliminating the plant altogether. So, along with the UK as New Zealand, it’s our hope that we will have our representatives to talk about what we have done in New Zealand,” she said.

Another panellist, Clive Bates, observed that WHO sets the tone for health issues across the globe and how each country should be doing certain things.

Bates argues that the FCTC approach is largely exhortation, citing Article 6 of the policies, which talks about price and tax measures.

The article reads, “Without prejudice to the sovereign right of the parties to determine and establish their taxation policies, each party should take account of its national health objectives concerning tobacco control and adopt or maintain, as appropriate, measures which may include Implementing tax policies and, where appropriate, price policies, on tobacco products so as to contribute to the health objectives aimed at reducing tobacco consumption.”

Bates said there is enough evidence that suggests that compared with the status quo, replacement of cigarettes by E-Cigarette over a 10-year period yields 6.6 million less deaths with 86.7 million fewer life years lost in the optimistic scenario. Under pessimistic scenario, 1.6 million premature deaths are predicted with 20.8 few life years lost.

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