Consumer groups ask Asia-Pacific countries to challenge WHO’s stance vs. vaping

Published September 26, 2021, 12:10 PM

by Manila Bulletin

Asia-Pacific countries should challenge the World Health Organization’s stance against vaping, an innovative product that has helped reduce smoking rate in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France and Canada, according to consumer groups.

The Nicotine Consumers Union of the Philippines (NCUP) and Vaper Ako particularly asked the Philippine government to join the four vaping-friendly countries in rebuking the extremist stance of the WHO on vaping that deprives millions of smokersbetter alternatives to combustible cigarettes.

Delegates from the Department of Health who will attend the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) Conference of the Parties meeting in November should think about the interest of more than 16 million Filipino smokers who deserve better options than the quit-or-die approach prescribed by WHO, according to the groups.

“Because of its refusal to acknowledge innovation in the field of the nicotine industry, the WHO has lost the sense of what is good and not for more than 1.1 billion smokers globally.  It is time for countries like the Philippines to remind the WHO FCTC of their commitment to tobacco harm reduction,” said Anton Israel, president of NCUP.

Israel was referring to the fourth pillar of FCTC which is harm reduction and the international human right to health.

Studies show that if they do not quit smoking or switch to less harmful alternatives, nearly half of smokers will die of smoking-related cardiovascular diseases.  The WHO estimated that more than 8 million smokers already die each year.

“The Department of Health should fight for the good of millions of Filipino smokers, and ignore the WHO’s policy preference that they be left alone to die without any alternatives.  The quit-or-die approach is an extremist ideology that has no room in modern public health strategies,” said Israel.

The NCUP and Vaper Ako said the Philippines should instead follow the example of New Zealand which adopted an independent approach on vaping to reduce smoking rate.

A research paper recently found that the four relatively vape-friendly jurisdictions—New Zealand, the UK, France and Canada—registered smoking cessation rates that are twice as fast as the global average.  This is despite the WHO’s policy preference against innovative nicotine products such as e-cigarettes.

Louis Houlbrooke, the campaigns manager of the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and a vaper, said New Zealand has again bucked the WHO orthodoxy, as the country’s Ministry of Health now recognizes that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than smoking and even ran a “vape to quit” public information campaign targeted at smokers.

“Our Ministry of Health is flirting with a more independent approach. Annual tobacco tax hikes have been scrapped in light of mounting evidence of the policy’s calamitous impact on household budgets. The tax also contributes to violent robberies and a thriving black market.  KPMG estimates that more than one in 10 cigarettes smoked in New Zealand are smuggled or homegrown,” said Houlbrooke, who contributed a case study on New Zealand to a new paper on international best practices toward vaping.

“The fact that the WHO has given us top marks in its policy scorecard for such a damaging tax undermines the body’s credibility,” he said.

Houlbrooke said while New Zealand’s new restrictions on vape flavors, advertising and nicotine strength would impede some smokers from making the switch, the Ministry of Health on balance should be proud to oversee a regime that allows smokers to evade death and taxes with less harmful, more affordable products.

Delegates from New Zealand and other countries will attend the WHO’s biannual conference on tobacco control in November.  The Conference of the Parties or COP9 will update the edicts the WHO delivers to nations that it believes desperately need moral guidance in the war on tobacco, according to Houlbrooke.

“At first glance, the WHO’s policy preferences reveal a single-minded focus on public health outcomes, economic consequences be damned. But even on basic public health questions, the WHO is driven by ideology,” said Houlbrooke.

He said the WHO is currently fixated on “threats posed by new nicotine and tobacco products” like e-cigarettes, pushing bans and strict regulations that ignore the role of vaping as an aid to quit smoking and ignore Public Health England’s widely-acknowledged finding that vaping is 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes.

Houlbrooke noted that the WHO even gave an award to India’s Health Minister for banning e-cigarettes, a decision that denied 100 million smokers access to a potentially life-saving alternative to cigarettes.

Houlbrooke said New Zealand’s Ministry of Health delegates should not boycott the WHO’s talkfest in November and should instead tell New Zealand’s story with pride. “And if the WHO refuses to budge on its paranoid stance, other countries can look to us as a rebellious example to follow,” he said.