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.
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.
“O Brasil vai repensar sua proibição de vaping?” Brazil is consulting on lifting its ban on vaping products. Will it recognise the perverse consequences of prohibition and shift to risk-proportionate regulation? We argue it should rethink its approach to nicotine.
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.
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.
The September 2021 edition of CHEST, the respiratory journal, features a point/counterpoint debate on the value of e-cigarettes for tobacco harm reduction. I am making the case in favour (the Point) and Dr Hasmeena Kathuria (Boston University) and Dr Frank T. Leone (University of Pennsylvania) are making the case against (the Counterpoint). We each provide a shorter rebuttal to the arguments made by the other. We also recorded a 30-minute podcast to air these arguments face-to-face. Recognising the broader interest in the subject, CHEST has kindly made this content open access so far.
Whatever you think of the respective arguments, it was refreshing to find a forum willing to air them in a respectful and measured way, I am grateful to Drs Kathuria and Leone for engaging and making their case and to CHEST for providing the platform. I wish we could have much more debate like this.
For ease of access, I have added the relevant links below.
It is first-class public-interest journalism, with some hard messages for Bloomberg but plenty of balancing comment too.
The response. The interesting thing is that this drew a joint response from Kelly Henning of Bloomberg Philanthropies, Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Robin Koval of the Truth Initiative. See Vaping and Philanthropy: Debating Strategies That Work (web archive). There is a substrate of anger and panic in the letter that suggests that Gunther hit a raw nerve.
What is unusual about this letter is that Henning, Myers and Koval actually try to defend their positions. Normally, they don’t defend their positions, they just assert them with millions of dollars of amplification. It offers a rare opportunity to provide a critique of their stance. So I have taken their response letter, broken it down into 15 propositions, and provided a response to each. Each section starts with a quote from the letter pulled out in a quote box in bold dark-blue. The letter is analysed in its entirety. Continue reading “Holding the Bloomberg anti-vaping propaganda complex to account”
The Netherlands is proposing to ban e-cigarette flavours – what could possibly go wrong?
The government of the Netherlands, led by Paul Blokhuis, State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport, is in imminent danger of fooling itself into becoming an unwitting ally of the cigarette trade. By taking measures to make vaping less attractive (notably by proposing a ban on all non-tobacco flavours for e-cigarettes), it threatens to degrade the appeal of a low-risk rival to cigarettes, provide regulatory protection to the cigarette trade, prolong smoking, obstruct quitting, and add to the burden of disease and death. All this in the name of protecting youth, while managing to harm both adults and adolescents. Quite a feat for any politician.
The problem is hubris – believing that the world responds to regulation in the way the regulator thinks it should. Experience suggests foreseeable perverse consequences will be the result of the ill-conceived prohibitions of much safer alternatives to smoking, including flavoured e-cigarettes.
It really isn’t difficult to understand why and how this would happen – I can only assume the State Secretary received very poor advice, which would not be unusual in this field. Nevertheless, twenty-four international experts have set out the arguments and evidence in detail in a submission to the Dutch government, hoping to spare Mr Blokhuis later embarrassment and, even more importantly, to avoid yet more death and disease from smoking in the Netherlands. It should also be a wake-up call to like-minded politicians and naive policymakers in the United States, European Union, and the World Health Organisation who continue to fail to grasp the impact of low-risk products in the real world.
The case is set out in 30-page submission to a Dutch government consultation on the measure. The relevant documents are:
The Food and Drug Administration of the United States has requested information on “Vaping Products Associated With Lung Injuries” – see Regulation.gov and Docket FDA-2020-N-0597 to make a submission or read the views of others.
In my view, the sly attribution of this problem to e-cigarettes and nicotine e-liquids by activists, academics and supposed public health agencies has been as bad as the worst ‘merchants of doubt’ operations of Big Tobacco in the 1970s. I have labelled it a mere “fiasco” only out of politeness because the word implies that only incompetence and negligence lay behind it. But I think it was much more deliberate than that – and we know that because virtually nothing has been done to correct misperceptions that were created and spread across the US and worldwide from July to December 2019.
I don’t wish to indulge this propaganda operation by providing straight-up evidence to the FDA on this. Pretty well everything that needs to be known is already known about the cause and consequences. What is missing is a truthful account of the response. So instead, I would like to take the opportunity to speak truthfully and directly about what was done here. So here is my brief response to FDA’s call for information.
The commentary claims to show the “invalidity” of the statements made by Public Health England (PHE) and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) regarding the relative risk of vaping and smoking – in short that vaping is likely to be at least 95% lower risk than smoking. As this is an important harm-reduction risk communication, it is worth asking: how valid is this critique?
I thought this might be a better critique than it actually is. But somewhat to my surprise, it is very poor indeed.
At best, the authors try to show the absolute risk of vaping is not zero and that some harm is plausible. In doing so, they are refuting a claim that neither PHE or RCP make and challenging an argument not used by anyone sensible in tobacco harm reduction. However, not a single word of their paper addresses the supposed foundation of their critique – that PHE/RCP are wrong and the risks of vaping are likely to exceed five per cent of those of smoking. As well as a number of baseless assertions that are not even relevant to the “at least 95 per cent lower” relative risk claim (gateway effects, smoking cessation efficacy and second-hand aerosol exposure), there is just nothing in the paper about the relativemagnitude of smoking and vaping risks. No analysis, no data, no evidence – nothing that discusses relative risk and why PHE/RCP are supposedly wrong. Niente. Nada. Rien. Nichts. Nothing.