Fake news alert: WHO updates its post-truth fact sheet on e-cigarettes

The World Health Organisation continues to present misleading information about e-cigarettes that spreads doubt and confusion among the public, media and policymakers. This post reviews its latest Q & A and finds multiple errors of analysis, misleading statements, and obvious biases.

The World Health Organisation provides information on e-cigarettes that contains false and misleading statements while overstating risks and ignoring opportunities

The World Health Organisation maintains a Q & A on e-cigarettes. It was updated on 25 May 2022.

This has been updated several times (see history below). In each of its incarnations, this web page has presented a profoundly misleading account of the risks and benefits of e-cigarettes. It ignores the fact that eight million people are dying annually from smoking (around the same order as COVID-19) and that hundreds of millions of smokers could benefit from switching to low-risk alternatives to smoking. The Q & A is primarily a vehicle for promoting prohibition and generating hostility to the pragmatic public health strategy of tobacco harm reduction. It is anti-scientific, its information is misleading, and its effect or purpose is to sow confusion and doubt rather than to candidly explain e-cigarettes.

I have set out the main sections of the latest Q & A below with a short general commentary on each section followed by the main claims in each section drawn out in block quotes followed by comments.

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E-cigarette risk perceptions – an American crime scene

Most Americans now incorrectly believe that e-cigarettes are just as harmful or more harmful than cigarettes. US health organisations have unethically cultivated this misunderstanding and compare unfavourably with UK equivalents. Their duplicitous behaviour resembles that of Big Tobacco 50 years ago.

Note: ‘Don’t know’ is handled inconsistently across the surveys, so I have merged ‘don’t know’ and ‘never heard of e-cigarettes’ (some care needed)

I have drawn the chart above from the US National Cancer Institute HINTS survey, picking up results from 2014, 2017 and the most recent data from 2020. The current situation is shocking and the trend is a disgrace. But how has this happened?

In this blog, I compare the vaping risk communications of four major American health organisations with four similar UK organisations. The comparison is damning.

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