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.
At the start of COP-9, the head of the FCTC convention secretariat proudly drew a comparison with the other COP, the one going on in Glasgow dealing with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Perhaps she hoping some of the interest in UNFCCC COP-26 would rub off on the altogether more tawdry FCTC COP-9. But the tobacco COP takes an aggressive exclusionary and insular approach to stakeholders that would never be tolerated in the climate COP. This post compares the two COPs.
This post examines how WHO and related institutions aggressively promote the prohibition of much safer alternatives to cigarettes, such as vaping and heated tobacco products. The effect, if not the intent, is to protect the cigarette trade from competition, to promote black markets, to stimulate harmful workarounds, to nurture criminal networks, to harm young people, and to prolong the epidemic of avoidable smoking-related disease. It’s a reckless policy, built on misplaced righteousness, defended by bureaucratic inertia, sustained by group-think, and cultivated by elitist billionaire foundation money. It’s a curse and a blight on public health, and government representatives should apply real-world policy disciplines and reject it.
It’s World No Tobacco Day and we have sent our detailed letter and multiple critical expert comments to the WHO Director-General. The covering note and links to relevant documents are reproduced below. I hope it causes them to pause and reflect. My guess is that Tedros has been very badly advised here.
On 20 January 2020, the World Health Organisation published a question and answer page on “ENDS” (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems) or e-cigarettes and vaping products for nicotine as they are more commonly known: E-cigarettes: how risky are they? (current live version)
Update (31 January 2019) – WHO’s amended version: almost certainly in response to severe criticisms, WHO published an update to its Q & A some time on 29 January. The 20 January original version, (archived) which WHO heavily publicised (e.g. see Twitter thread) is the subject of this blog, not least because it allows debunking of some especially absurd anti-vaping statements. WHO has not notified readers of the changes or issued any acknowledgement of correction or error. So for comparison purposes, I have compared the original and updated versions side-by-side in the final section of this blog: go to Update: what WHO has changed. Much of my original criticism applies to the amended version, which mainly removes some of the most blatantly false and misleading statements. Update ends.
There are nine questions and every single answer provides false, misleading or simplistic information, and this remains true of the 29 January update. It is a disgraceful travesty of science communication and policymaking advice and again puts in question the competence of the WHO – if there is still any doubt about this. But it is so bad that it even fails as anti-vaping activist propaganda – and that is a low bar.
I did a Twitter chat with the Campaign for Safer Alternatives on the typical objections raised to tobacco harm reduction. For those interested in the responses but who missed the live chat or got as confused as I did in trying to follow threaded answers, here is the chat as it unfolded over 15 questions with everything in the right order.