The World Health Organisation has once again defied scientific advice by baldly stating that ‘E-cigarettes are not proven cessation aids’. The WHO’s stance flies in the face of all the available evidence. In fact, a gold standard Cochrane Review published last year showed that e-cigarettes can be very effective in helping people to quit smoking.
Unfortunately, it’s no great surprise to see the WHO taking an anti-science approach to this issue. Its conduct during the pandemic has led many observers to question not just its decision-making processes, but its very viability as an organisation. The cross-party All Party Parliamentary Group for Vaping has called for the UK to withdraw funding for the WHO if they continue to claim vaping does not help smokers quit.
The APPG’s position reflects the fact Britain is one of the world’s leading nations when it comes to encouraging safer alternatives to combustible cigarettes. Indeed, Health Minister Jo Churchill recently said that her department ‘agrees that e-cigarettes can play an important role in supporting smokers to quit.’. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has congratulated the Indian government for banning the sale of e-cigarettes, at a time when a million people a year in India are dying from smoking-related illnesses. A harm reduction model of lowering smoking rates could play a big role in reducing that figure.
But although we are pursuing the right policies at home, the UK looks increasingly isolated on this issue internationally, with perhaps only New Zealand and Canada offering some hope of supporting her at this year’s Conference of the Parties meeting on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Unless the Government puts some real effort into building a strong coalition to prevent the WHO trying ban vaping in its member countries, it could find its domestic policies completely at odds with the WHO and the FCTC.
Frustratingly, at a time when the Government has put itself at the forefront of climate change action by hosting the COP26 conference, it has been less assertive on the world’s biggest cause of preventable deaths. Encouraging more vaping might not be seen as a great vote-winner for politicians, but with around 7 million people dying every year due to smoking-related illnesses, getting policy right in this area could have a huge impact. Even the most pessimistic studies suggest around 250,000 deaths per year between 2030-50 due to climate change – deaths from smoking are happening now and are 28 times higher.
The UK has real clout when it comes to the WHO: we are its biggest funder by some distance, spending over £340m of taxpayers’ over four years. Why, then, are we not exerting more influence in this area? As it stands we appear to be fighting a losing battle against an international consensus to over-regulate or even ban vaping products which are proven to be the most successful and popular quitting aids available.
Given the huge political tussle we have been through to extricate ourselves from the European Union, it would be perverse to now sleepwalk into a situation where another distant supranational organisation pressures us to change policies with a proven track record of success.
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