I reported on the April 25th the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) was aiming to classify electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) as tobacco products. This means that the same restrictions on advertising, taxation, access and public use will apply to them too, and may discourage tobacco smokers to quit.
It was described at the time by Katherine Devlin, President Electronic Cigarette Trade Association (ECITA) as “…hugely unhelpful for public health.”
E-cigarettes seem to have united the libertarian right and the socially concerned left in wanting to give a choice to smokers. Libertarians such at the Institute of Economic Affairs, and anti-smoking Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) see it as a way of weaning addicts off smoking. Much of the intellectual input has been a mixture of the two camps.
Clive Bates, the former head of ASH, is one of the main researchers and proponents and ironically was a speaker at the IEA debate in July 2013 entitled ‘Free Market Solutions in Health: Prohibition or Harm Reduction’. There was broad agreement in the room, with disagreements mostly focused upon what level of government regulation was required.
The WHO, faced with growing opposition, have more intellectual ballast to deal with. A letter published yesterday from 53 leading health academics has urged the organisation to desist from its goals. Example signatories include John Britton, Professor of Epidemiology; Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, Martin Jarvis, Emeritus Professor of Health Psychology and Linda Bauld, Professor of Health Policy. They say:
“We have known for years that people smoke for the nicotine, but die from the smoke: the vast majority of the death and disease attributable to tobacco arises from inhalation of tar particles and toxic gases drawn into the lungs. There are now rapid developments in nicotine-based products that can effectively substitute for cigarettes but with very low risks. These include for example, e-cigarettes and other vapour products, low-nitrosamine smokeless tobacco such as snus..”
“The urge to control and suppress them as tobacco products should be resisted and instead regulation that is fit for purpose and designed to realise the potential should be championed by WHO. We are deeply concerned that the classification of these products as tobacco and their inclusion in the FCTC will do more harm than good, and obstruct efforts to meet the targets to reduce non-communicable disease we are all committed to.”
Indeed it has reported that Philip Morris International the makers of Marlboro cigarettes has spent $650 million on a new tobacco device that greatly reduces tar and the cancer inducing chemical benzo(a)pyrene. Many of the major brands such as Imperial Tobacco and Lorillard have purchased e-cig brands while British American Tobacco have spent millions in its research centre in Southampton on harm reduction.
The reasons for the WHO’s insistence are opaque. Many anti-smokers are against the “renormalisation” of the sight of smoking. Some cynics point to the hands of the pharmaceutical industry, referred to disparagingly as “Big Pharma.”
Certainly they have the most to lose. One paper from the University of London found that e-cig users were 60 percent more likely to quit than other methods including their drugs patches and gum.
Dr. Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health, pointed out eighteen months ago that “Anti-Smoking groups that oppose electronic cigarettes received an additional $1.4 Million from Big Pharma, beyond the $2.8 Million revealed earlier; groups repeatedly failed to disclose this Conflict of Interest.”
If the WHO does not yield, it will only mean fewer smokers quitting tobacco – the complete opposite of what they are trying to achieve.