A parliamentary study group in the United Kingdom has called on the British government and health authorities to challenge the World Health Organization (WHO) position on vaping at an upcoming international treaty conference. The UK is the largest and most prominent country to advocate for vaping as a harm reduction tool for people who smoke, but until now has not pressed the WHO to change its prohibitionist stance.
The recommendation came in a report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Vaping, issued after a four-month inquiry into the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC is an international treaty organization with 182 member states that serves as the anti-tobacco arm of the WHO. The parliamentary investigation came in response to the WHO “encouraging and applauding bans on vaping.”
The FCTC’s policy goals (and those of the WHO’s other tobacco control operations) are heavily influenced by private tobacco control organizations like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and The Union, whose international lobbying and policy work is funded by Michael Bloomberg, an American billionaire and former New York City mayor. Bloomberg is the largest private funder of anti-tobacco efforts in the world, and his money clears a path for the prohibitionist policy demands that inevitably follow.
All of the Bloomberg-funded tobacco control and public health organizations advocate for bans and restrictions on vaping—especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In 2016, Bloomberg was named the WHO’s “Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) and Injuries”—an honorary position that reflects the WHO’s alignment with the moralistic mayor.
But the UK government has largely adopted a pro-vaping stance, encouraging people who smoke to use e-cigarettes as a tool to quit and reduce or eliminate the harms caused by combustible tobacco. In 2015, Public Health England famously pronounced vaping to be “95 percent safer” than smoking—a position PHE has maintained in subsequent evidence reviews.
The British government currently provides 70 percent of the FCTC Secretariat’s funding. The Secretariat is the FCTC’s executive arm and leadership group. In theory, it exists to execute the policies demanded by member countries. But in practice, the opposite is true: members carry out the wishes of the Secretariat, which are the policies promoted by the Bloomberg-funded tobacco control organizations.
The APPG says the UK government should consider “dramatically scaling back” its funding of the WHO and FCTC if the international organizations don’t reconsider their opposition to vaping and harm reduction in general. Harm reduction is supposed to be a pillar of the FCTC’s tobacco control strategy, but that tool has been largely ignored.
The report concludes that the FCTC is no longer “fit for purpose,” meaning that the organization’s strategies and results don’t meet its original objectives. The report says the FCTC must be re-examined, but recognizes that the Secretariat will try to block such an effort.
While the FCTC is no longer fit for purpose, says the report, “it is worth noting that the WHO and the FCTC Secretariat are likely to be a significant block in any attempt to make the FCTC fit for purpose again both now and in the future.”
Indeed, it will be nearly impossible to move the FCTC Secretariat from its current stance, which is wedded to the positions of the Bloomberg-funded tobacco control groups that have controlled it for years. The UK would have to bring other large countries to its point of view in order to convince the FCTC to shift toward vaping and harm reduction. Following the UK exit from the European Union, its influence among other European countries has probably diminished.
The APPG report comes more than seven months before the ninth FCTC Conference of the Parties (COP9), which is scheduled for November 8-13, 2021 in the Netherlands (the conference was postponed from last year because of the coronavirus pandemic). There is plenty of time for the UK health ministry to reconsider its approach before the conference, which is a meeting of all FCTC member countries. The APPG has requested a meeting with Public Health Minister Jo Churchill to discuss the report and recommendations.
The APPG report recommends the UK “should send a balanced delegation of officials and experts that includes proponents of evidence-based policy and harm reduction to COP9.” In previous years, the delegations sent to COPs by the UK Department of Health & Social Care have not opposed FCTC policy recommendations that conflict with the pro-harm reduction positions held by most UK health experts. The APPG report also encourages to health ministry to include consumers, which has been discouraged by the FCTC.
“At the FCTC COP9 the UK has a unique opportunity to champion its progressive, successful and evidence-based, domestic policies on the Global Stage,” said Member of Parliament Mark Pawsey, the APPG chair. “We are a world leader in tobacco harm reduction, and we call on the Government to defend the UK approach, challenge the WHO to stub out their ban on vaping, and help return the FCTC to its founding pillar of harm reduction.”
The APPG on Vaping is made up of members from both chambers of the British Parliament: the House of Commons and House of Lords. The group includes members from the Conservative and Labour parties. It held two public sessions, taking testimony from multiple expert witnesses.