As delegates gather for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) biennial conference on tobacco, the authors of a new report, “No Fire, No Smoke: Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction,” are fiercely criticizing the WHO’s record. The public health experts accuse the WHO of failing to comply with international treaty obligations to back reduced-harm alternatives to smoking. They deplore that the WHO instead recommends bans on e-cigarettes—a move that has been implemented by dozens of countries.
The authors of “No Fire, No Smoke“ say that lower-risk alternatives such as e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn devices, and Swedish snus have been hugely successful at reducing smoking. Yet they say that the WHO has displayed a historic hostility to them.
“The WHO ignores its own treaty that obliges signatories to adopt the harm-reduction approach of encouraging safer nicotine products. This is a tragic missed opportunity to stop one billion lives being claimed by smoking this century,” said Professor Gerry Stimson of Knowledge Action Change (London), which commissioned the report.
The report lists the 39 countries where e-cigarettes or nicotine liquids are banned, including Australia, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia. The European Union allows e-cigarettes but bans the pasteurized oral tobacco product snus that is exceptionally popular in Scandinavia.
Following the introduction of snus in Norway, the smoking rate among young women plummeted from 30% to just 1%. In the United States, the rapid growth in e-cigarette use has been accompanied by a decrease in smoking among school-aged children, with numbers dropping by half over the last 6 years. Meanwhile, in Japan, the success of heated tobacco products has seen cigarette sales fall by a quarter over the last 2 years.
“In examining the data, it has been striking how closely tied the availability of these substitutes is to plunging smoking rates. Whatever the motivation for countries banning them, they need to realize that such policies make them the tobacco industry’s best friends,” said Harry Shapiro, the lead author of the report.
While the Europe Union has made snus illegal, in several Asia-Pacific countries, bans on using e-cigarettes cause the most concern.
“Many of the vapers I represent live in fear of getting arrested for trying to save their lives. Their countries allow deadly cigarettes but ban much safer e-cigarettes because the WHO has encouraged bans,” said Nancy Sutthoff of the consumer group International Network of Nicotine Consumers Organisations.
The WHO policy making conference will be attended by representatives of 181 countries. All 181 countries have ratified the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which obliges them to incorporate harm reduction. However, the WHO event is far from inclusive: in previous years, it has banned consumers, journalists, and bodies including Interpol from attending.
The “No Fire, No Smoke: Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction” report and this press release are published by Knowledge Action Change, a private sector public health agency.