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.

The table of contents below follows the structure of the WHO’s Q & A. I have highlighted each statement in the WHO Q & A in a box quote and followed by a short commentary on each.

Tobacco: E-cigarettes

1. Are e-cigarettes dangerous?

The very framing of the question reveals the problem. The real question is “how dangerous?” This question should be asked in two ways:

(1) how dangerous compared to the product that dominates the market, that is cigarettes?

(2) how dangerous compared to some sort of benchmark of acceptable risk, for example, occupational exposure standards or other comparable behaviours?

If vaping is much less risky than smoking, then there is a large health benefit for people who switch from smoking to vaping. If the use of a product is at a level of risk that is within our normal tolerance of risk, then there is not much reason to mount a big public health response to it – as with caffeine and coffee or moderate alcohol consumption.

In the following paragraphs, WHO never addresses the “how dangerous?” questions. But without addressing them, it has no basis for informing or advising anyone or for suggesting appropriate policy responses.

Electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) are the most common form of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) and electronic non-nicotine delivery systems (ENNDS) but there are others, such as e-cigars and e-pipes. ENDS contain varying amounts of nicotine and harmful emissions.

E-cigarette emissions typically contain nicotine and other toxic substances that are harmful to both users, and non-users who are exposed to the aerosols second-hand. Some products claiming to be nicotine-free (ENNDS) have been found to contain nicotine.

Nicotine is the main reason why people smoke or vape. It is a relatively mild psychoactive drug that has several effects – such as helping to control stress and anxiety and improving concentration. That is why people use it. It is dependence-forming, but nicotine is not very harmful in itself. It is not a cause of intoxication, oblivion, violence or, over the long term, serious disease.

The harm to health is mainly done by the smoke: the toxic gases and sticky particles inhaled into the lungs along with the nicotine (sometimes called ‘tar’). The hazardous chemicals in tobacco smoke that are the main cause of cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory disease are mainly products of combustion formed in the tip of the burning cigarette and as the smoke cools. In contrast, e-cigarettes heat a flavoured nicotine liquid to form an aerosol of tiny droplets, which contain nicotine. But because the liquid is heated but not burnt, there is no combustion and therefore no products of combustion. So the harmful agents in cigarette smoke are either present at much lower levels or not detectable or measurable at all.

Biomarkers show much lower toxic exposures. This can be seen experimentally by measuring hazardous agents found in the blood, saliva and urine, so-called biomarkers of exposure. These measurements show dramatically reduced exposures to the main hazardous substance of concern compared to smoking. Experts commissioned by Public Health England reviewed the available biomarker literature in 2018 and concluded:

Vaping poses only a small fraction of the risks of smoking and switching completely from smoking to vaping conveys substantial health benefits over continued smoking. Based on current knowledge, stating that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking remains a good way to communicate the large difference in relative risk unambiguously so that more smokers are encouraged to make the switch from smoking to vaping. It should be noted that this does not mean e-cigarettes are safe. [link]

The consumption of nicotine in children and adolescents has deleterious impacts on brain development, leading to long-term consequences for brain development and potentially leading to learning and anxiety disorders.

WHO draws on speculative theories that are based largely on rodent studies and large doses of nicotine to make this claim. The key point is that despite many generations of adolescent nicotine users growing up as smokers since the 1950s, no one has so far identified any lasting cognitive impairments in those adults who started using nicotine as adolescent smokers over this long period. It is a difficult area to study, and it is possible there are some ill effects, but this is far from established and definitely not with the unequivocal confidence conveyed by WHO in this answer.

Writing in the American Journal of Public Health in 2021, fifteen former presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco summarised the state of knowledge as follows:

Balfour, D. J. K., Benowitz, N. L., Colby, S. M., (2021). Balancing Consideration of the Risks and Benefits of E-Cigarettes. American Journal of Public Health, 111(9), 1661–1672.

Nicotine is highly addictive …

It is wrong to make the general claim that “nicotine is highly addictive”, although this statement is common. It depends on what is meant by addiction and how the nicotine is taken. I have addressed the question about nicotine addiction under the question heading “Are ENDS addictive?” below.

…and some evidence suggest that never-smoker minors who use ENDS can double their chance of starting to smoke tobacco cigarettes later in life.

WHO falsely asserts the operation of a so-called gateway effect. These claims are often repeated as if there is some evidence that the prior vaping caused the subsequent smoking. There is no evidence to support a causal gateway effect and much to suggest the opposite, notably the dramatic decline in youth smoking in the United States that coincided with a rapid rise in youth vaping, sometimes referred to as the “youth vaping epidemic”.

The decline in the adolescent use of combustibles (i.e. smoking) accelerated after 2018 – coinciding with the so-called “youth vaping epidemic”

Common liability is the far more plausible explanation. There is a completely different and much more likely explanation for the observed association: that the same sort of things that incline people to vape also incline them to smoke. These would be things like genetics, parental smoking, mental health status, school performance and delinquency, rebelliousness, and aspects of the family and community context. This is known as confounding by common risk factors, or sometimes as “common liability”. The evidence strongly supports this explanation, not the gateway theory. It means that e-cigarette use is more likely to be concentrated in people who have smoked or would otherwise smoke – offering a significant health benefit concentrated within the population most at risk.

Evidence reveals that these products are harmful to health and are not safe. However, it is too early to provide a clear answer on the long-term impact of using them or being exposed to them. Some recent studies suggest that ENDS use can increase the risk of heart disease and lung disorders. Nicotine exposure in pregnant women can have similar consequences for the brain development of the fetus.

There is no convincing evidence that ENDS are seriously harmful to health. Once again we see the use of “harmful to health” and “not safe”, without asking the “how harmful?” or “how unsafe?” questions. The (unstated) studies that supposedly show that ENDS increases the risks of lung or heart disease are highly problematic. Almost all ENDS users old enough to experience significant disease have been long-term smokers. It is impossible to separate the effects of their smoking history from the marginal effects of their time as vapers. Some studies even count heart or lung disease episodes that occurred before the vaping started in their calculations of vaping risk. There are many studies that show that ENDS have an observable effect on the body, but there is little to show that these effects amount to a clinically significant risk.

This is how the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine summarised the risks in its 2018 report:

National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine NASEM (US).  The Public Health Consequences of E-cigarettes. Washington DC. January 2018. [link]  Launch presentation summary (slide 44)  [link][link]

The long term effects may be negligible. The statement about the long-term is really a statement of the obvious – we do not have the luxury of time travel to observe with certainty what the long term effects will turn out to be. The health effects of long term use may well turn out to be trivial. We do know the toxic exposures involved with vaping are much lower than for smoking (the second point) and therefore we should default to expecting health burdens to be much lower too. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that people can smoke for two decades (from say age 15 to 35) or more and not suffer any noticeable loss of life expectancy. It takes a lot to get sick, even from smoking.

ENDS use can also expose non-smokers and bystanders to nicotine and other harmful chemicals.

There is no evidence of material risk to bystanders. WHO continues with its unquantified approach to risk. The framing “can also expose” is wholly misleading in this context. What matters is how much exposure and to what sort of hazard? I have responded to this assertion under WHO’s question 5. Are secondhand ENDS emissions dangerous?

Electronic delivery systems have also been linked to a number of physical injuries, including burns from explosions or malfunctions, when the products are not of the expected standard or are tampered with by users.

E-cigarette use is likely to substantially reduce injuries. Again, some context is required. Yes, there are isolated incidents involving battery malfunctions or short circuits (e.g. through contact with coins in pockets). But this comes nowhere close to the carnage caused by smoking-related fires. The US National Fire Protection Association gives some perspective:

  • During 2012-2016, an estimated annual average of 18,100 (5%) reported home structure fires started by smoking materials killed an average of 590 (23%) people annually, injured 1,130 (10%) per year, and caused $476 million in direct property damage (7%) per year.
  • One in 20 home (5%) home structure fires were started by smoking materials. These fires caused almost one in four (23%) home fire deaths, and one in 10 (10%) home fire injuries.
  • Smoking was the leading cause of home fire deaths for the five year period from 2012-2016. Overall, one of every 31 home smoking material fires resulted in death.

Has it occurred to WHO that mass switching from smoking to vaping would dramatically reduce the problem of fires and burns? This is because they do not involve an ignition source.

Accidental exposure of children to ENDS e-liquids pose serious risks as devices may leak, or children may swallow the poisonous e-liquid.

Nicotine e-liquids pose a minor risk to safety. Again, what matters is the scale of this problem and other problems that it offsets. There are accidents caused by almost everything – not least medicines, cleaning fluids, cosmetics and alcohol. Again what matters is the “how much harm?” question. A look at the reports of US Poison Control Centers data (Annual report 2020PDF) gives some perspective:

Pediatric poison exposures and deaths by exposure substance 2020 data
Table 17C & 17D

Tobacco, nicotine and e-cigarettes combined are ranked at 25 in pediatric exposure reports (17C) and don’t figure in the top 25 for deaths (17E). But this combines tobacco and e-liquid exposure. Table 22 in the report shows that tobacco products account for 72% of the combined total pediatric exposures for tobacco, nicotine and e-cigarettes. Not mentioned by WHO: nicotine medications accounted for 1,608 poison exposures in 2020.

2. Do e-cigarettes (ENDS) cause lung injuries?

Nicotine e-cigarettes did not cause the lung injuries described in this section. This entire section is completely misleading and has no place in a Q & A on nicotine e-cigarettes or ENDS (electronic nicotine delivery systems). It is clear beyond doubt that nicotine vaping was not implicated in the outbreak of EVALI discussed in this section.

There is growing evidence that ENDS could be associated with lung injuries and in recent times e-cigarette and vaping have been linked to an outbreak of lung injury in the USA. This is described by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury (EVALI), which led the CDC to activate an emergency investigation into EVALI on 17 September 2019.

In fact, there is no evidence for this whatsoever. This is a statement that ENDS (i.e. nicotine products) are implicated in the episode of lung injuries seen in the US in late 2019. The evidence is clearly contrary to this. Here is how I summarised the argument in my critique: The outbreak of lung injuries often known as “EVALI” was nothing to do with nicotine vaping.

Bates, C. (2021). The outbreak of lung injuries often known as “EVALI” was nothing to do with nicotine vaping. Qeios. https://doi.org/10.32388/ZGVHM7.3

The CDC notes, “As of 18 February 2020, there have been a total of 2,807 cases of EVALI reported from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, including 60 deaths confirmed in 27 states and the District of Columbia. While the cause of these deaths has not been conclusively determined, vitamin E acetate (VEA), a common additive in ENDS that contains cannabis (or THC), is thought to have played a significant role in these cases of lung injury. Further information on this incident, including a strong link of the EVALI outbreak to Vitamin E Acetate and the latest report, is available at [link to CDC] which is updated every week, as the evidence is not sufficient to exclude the contribution of other chemicals.”

This quote is fake and misleading. This is nonsense and not even a real quote from CDC. This is not the wording used by CDC and the word “ENDS” does not appear on the CDC page cited. The reason is obvious: ENDS means “Electronic Nicotine Delivery System” and there are no ENDS that have THC and Vitamin E Acetate (VEA) added because that is not physically possible (see Kozlovich et al, 2021) – these liquids do not mix. Far from being updated every week, this CDC page was last updated in February 2020.

The wrong time and wrong attribution. That might be because the outbreak had dwindled to almost nothing by February 2020. This is consistent with supply chain contamination (with VEA) that ended once the problem was discovered and the supply chain emptied.

Source CDC

Yet more than two years later, in May 2022, it seems as though anti-vaping activists like the World Health Organisation found that promoting the EVALI story was just too tempting not to use in their misinformation operations. They commit the dual sin of drawing on an episode that is substantially over and misattributing it to nicotine e-cigarettes.

3. Are e-cigarettes more or less dangerous than conventional tobacco cigarettes?

WHO goes through great contortions to avoid truthfully saying less dangerous. The most important feature of this section is that WHO does not answer this question with a truthful answer like “much less dangerous”. This is the correct unambiguous answer based on current scientific knowledge. In fact, WHO does not answer the question it poses at all – I suspect this is in order not to have to answer it truthfully.

The question is used to imply e-cigarettes may be more dangerous. The question itself creates an anchoring bias: suggesting that it is even possible that e-cigarettes may be as dangerous or more dangerous – as if it is somehow a finely balanced call. It is not finely balanced. Not even close. The reasonable question would be “how much less dangerous are e-cigarettes than conventional tobacco cigarettes?”. The answer is a lot less.

Both tobacco products and ENDS pose risks to health.  The safest approach is not to use either.

WHO offers a diversion from the question. Yes, but that formulation is simplistic: it avoids the “how dangerous?” questions and avoids the actual question asked in the Q & A – which is what is the relative risk of smoking and vaping? What if they differ in risk by a factor of about twenty times as many experts believe? Using neither may be a good option – but what about people who want to use nicotine or would find it difficult to stop?

The levels of risk associated with using ENDS or tobacco products are likely to depend on a range of factors, some relating to the products used and some to the individual user. Factors include product type and characteristics, how the products are used, including frequency of use, how the products are manufactured, who is using the product, and whether product characteristics are manipulated post-sale.

While ignoring the most fundamental difference (combustion), WHO introduces distracting but relatively trivial differences. WHO approaches this question on the basis that because we don’t know everything we must know nothing, adding the appearance of complexity to obscure more fundamental differences between e-cigarettes and cigarettes – namely that there are no products or combustion and smoke inhalation.

Toxicity is not the only factor in considering risk to an individual or a population from exposure to ENDS emissions. These factors may include the potential for abusing or manipulating the product, use by children and adolescents who otherwise would not have used cigarettes, simultaneous use with other tobacco products (dual or poly use) and children and adolescents going on to use smoked products following experimentation with ENDS. 

To avoid answering the actual question, WHO evokes a gateway effect. Here WHO just evokes imagined pathways by which the use of the much safer product leads to the use of the much more dangerous product – a kind of sleight of hand to imply that vaping and smoking pose equivalent risks. The problem is that these pathways are based on a gateway theory that does not hold water.

Further, not all ENDS are the same and the risks to health may differ from one product to another, and from user to user.

WHO deploys a device to introduce doubt and to remove confidence that general advice about e-cigarettes being safer can be relied upon. It is a Merchants of Doubt tactic. There are of course differences between different vaping products – and differences arise from the pattern of use between users. This is also the case with combustion products. However, this should not be allowed to obscure the huge difference between the combustion and non-combustion nicotine products at the level of the whole category. The difference between smoke inhalation and smoke-free is the difference that really counts.

The claim that smoking and vaping have equivalent risk is the Big Lie of tobacco control. It is inconceivable that this would be the case, yet it is an easy and lazy (or cynical) statement to make. When Professor Stanton Glantz made this case he used 700 words, my rebuttal took 13,000 – see: Vaping risk compared to smoking: challenging a false and dangerous claim by Professor Stanton Glantz

As I mentioned above, Public Health England suggests that “stating that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking remains a good way to communicate the large difference in relative risk.” The Royal College of Physicians concurs:

“Although it is not possible to precisely quantify the long-term health risks associated with e-cigarettes, the available data suggest that they are unlikely to exceed 5% of those associated with smoked tobacco products, and may well be substantially lower than this figure.

These are much better ways of answering the question that WHO poses than the answers provided by WHO, which essentially say nothing useful at all, just distraction and obfuscation.

4. Are ENDS addictive?

Nicotine is highly addictive. A non-smoker who uses ENDS may become addicted to nicotine and find it difficult to stop using ENDS or become addicted to conventional tobacco products. 

The claim of addiction depends on what you mean by addiction and how the nicotine is delivered. WHO does not bother with such subtleties. There are two issues.

First, what is meant by the word “addiction”? This term is often used very loosely and often with the intention of stigmatising “the addict”, However, it has a specific meaning that does not apply to all forms of nicotine use.

Definitions of addiction
Most definitions of addiction stress both compulsive use and harmful consequences

E-cigarette use does not meet this definition for most users because nicotine itself isn’t that harmful and vaping just isn’t that harmful either.

Second, it depends on the way it is delivered. The dependence-forming characteristics of nicotine vary according to how it is delivered to the body – how much and how fast it reaches the brain, and also whether there are other agents that add to the effect. It is quite likely that many smokers who have taken up vaping “transfer” their nicotine dependence to the new products while benefitting from the greatly reduced risk.

This issue was discussed in the paper in the American Journal of Public Health by fifteen past presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.

Balfour, D. J. K., Benowitz, N. L., Colby, et al. (2021). Balancing Consideration of the Risks and Benefits of E-Cigarettes. American Journal of Public Health, 111(9), 1661–1672.

5. Are secondhand ENDS emissions dangerous?

The aerosols generated by ENDS typically raises the concentration of particulate matter in indoor environments and contain nicotine and other potentially toxic substances. ENDS emissions therefore pose potential risks to both users and non-users.

WHO avoids a comparison between secondhand smoke and secondhand aerosol. Again, WHO uses the words “potentially” and “potential” to avoid saying anything about how toxic or how risky. In my own Q&A on vaping and harm reduction, I highlight three key differences between secondhand smoke and secondhand vape exposure:

  1. The quantity emitted. Most of the inhaled vapour is absorbed by the user and only a small fraction is exhaled (15% or less, depending on the constituent).  In contrast, about four times as much environmental tobacco smoke comes directly from the burning tip of the cigarette than is exhaled by the smoker. There is no equivalent of this “sidestream smoke” for vaping.
  2. The toxicity of the emissions. Tobacco smoke contains hundreds of toxic products of combustion that are either not present or present at very low levels in vapour aerosol. Vapour emissions do not have toxicants present at levels that pose a material risk to health. Exposure to nicotine, itself relatively benign, is unlikely to reach a level of pharmacological or clinical relevance.
  3. The time that the emissions remain in the atmosphere. Environmental tobacco smoke persists for far longer in the environment (about 20-40 minutes per exhalation). The vapour aerosol droplets evaporate in less than a minute and the gas phase disperses in less than 2 minutes.

The main issue with vaping in public is etiquette and consideration for others. At this stage, there is nothing to suggest that indoor vaping presents a material risk to bystanders. But that does not mean there should be a license to vape at will anywhere. It means the owner of a property should determine the policy for their premises. A government override of these property rights can only be justified if there are material risks to bystanders or workers.

6. What are the policy options for regulating ENDS?

WHO leads with outright prohibition as its preferred policy, though it has never bothered to justify this with reference to intended and unintended consequences or the rights of smokers to access lower risk products. Almost everything else it proposes functions as a de facto protection of the cigarette trade.

How a country approaches ENDS will depend on factors particular to its situation. ENDS are currently banned in over 30 countries worldwide. In others they are regulated as consumer products, as pharmaceutical products, as tobacco products, other categories or totally unregulated.

Where they are not banned, WHO recommends that ENDS be regulated.

WHO starts with an anchoring bias: that the normal policy response should be the prohibition of ENDS. There is no scientific or ethical basis for this policy. Why would it make sense to ban the much safer nicotine product, deliberately deny law-abiding smokers better options, protect the cigarette trade from competition, stimulate unregulated black markets in vaping products, and draw young people into the illicit supply chain, and therefore into criminal networks?

WHO has never assessed the costs and risks of ENDS prohibition, but relentlessly promotes it all the same. I have written about WHO’s strong support of vaping prohibition here: Prohibitionists at work: how the WHO damages public health through hostility to tobacco harm reduction.

The arguments against prohibition are well put in this document by the consumers’ organisation INNCO: 10 reasons why blanket bans of e-cigarettes and HTPs in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are not fit for purpose.

International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO),
10 reasons why blanket bans of e-cigarettes and HTPs in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are not fit for purpose, March 20

Regulatory objectives include:

Preventing initiation of ENDS use by non-smokers and children, such as by preventing or restricting advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and restricting flavours that appeal to children 

Minimizing as far as possible potential health and/or risks to ENDS users, such as by regulating product characteristics

Protecting non-users from exposure to their emissions, such as by prohibiting ENDS use in indoor spaces where smoking is not permitted

Preventing unproven health claims

Protecting public health policies from commercial and other vested interests

WHO fails to grasp trade-offs and unintended consequences in policymaking. There is nothing in this regulatory package that shows that WHO has grasped the basics of policymaking in this area. The critical policy insight is that excessive regulation of vaping products functions as a barrier to entry and protection of the more dangerous cigarette products. The Royal College of Physicians (London) expressed this well in its 2016 report, Nicotine with smoke: tobacco harm reduction:

Tobacco Working Group. Royal College of Physicians (London)
Nicotine without smoke: tobacco harm reduction 28 April 2016

There are other trade-offs: the protection of young people from relatively minor risks (e.g. experimental vaping) could have the effect of imposing major risks on adults (continued smoking or relapse from vaping to smoking). A further complication is that for some adolescents, vaping will function as a diversion from smoking. For these young people, the teenagers most at risk, vaping creates a significant health benefit.

7. What role do ENDS play in smoking cessation?

To date, evidence on the use of ENDS as a cessation aid is inconclusive. In part due to the diversity of ENDS products and the low certainty surrounding many studies, the potential for ENDS to play a role as a population-level tobacco cessation intervention is unclear.

The evidence actually supports significant effects on smoking cessation. The evidence is only unclear if you insist on looking away from it or imposing a far higher standard of certainty than on any other tobacco control measure. All evidence is unclear to some degree, but evidence from multiple sources triangulates to strongly suggest that vaping assists with smoking cessation and that e-cigarettes function as economic substitutes for cigarettes. This is exactly what we should expect.

Professor Kenneth Warner of the University of Michigan summarises the state of the evidence as follows:

To truly help tobacco users quit and to strengthen global tobacco control, governments need to scale up policies and interventions that we know work. Tried and tested interventions, such as brief advice from health professionals, national toll-free quit lines and cessation interventions delivered via mobile text messaging are recommended. Where economically feasible, governments should also consider promoting nicotine replacement therapies and non-nicotine pharmacotherapies for cessation.

Smoking cessation and harm reduction are compatible, not opposing strategies. There is nothing wrong with some of these smoking cessation measures, but there is much less evidence than WHO implies that they work at scale in real-world settings or reach the smokers who are at the greatest risk (those who don’t want to quit). But they are not alternatives to harm reduction approaches and they work in a different way. E-cigarettes are not primarily a smoking cessation treatment (though they can be that as well) but work as a much safer consumer alternative to cigarettes for people who want to use nicotine.

WHO overstates its own role in addressing smoking. Nor are they the same as the measures promoted by WHO at last year’s World No Tobacco Day – Commit to Quit – when WHO launched a year-long campaign to help 100 million people quit tobacco. A year on we have heard little of this and no progress report. A year later, these claims look like empty hubris.

8. What is WHO doing about ENDS?

This section really reveals that WHO does very little other than publish prohibitionist propaganda. It is however worthwhile noting that its regrettable dependence on voluntary contributions leaves it exposed to major conflicts of interest.

WHO regularly monitors and reviews the evidence on ENDS and health and offers guidance to governments.

This includes the biennial WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, which tracks the status of the tobacco epidemic and interventions to combat it and other relevant resources. 

WHO strives to build a safer, healthier world for everyone, everywhere.

WHO does not pay attention to the evidence. If it did there would be much more discussion of trade-offs and possible benefits and a proportionate and more realistic approach to the risks. In fact, the report highlighted, the WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, was “made possible” by the private foundation of the billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, who coincidentally figures prominently in the report despite the claim that it is independent. The report acknowledgements include several anti-vaping activists, some funded by Bloomberg, brought in to do the work.

Extracts from the Acknowledgements section of the WHO report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2021

The influence of anti-vaping outsiders on WHO’s finances. Bloomberg’s foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, campaigns for vaping prohibitions to the extent possible wherever it works via the work of its grantees. Take the major Bloomberg funding recipient, the Union, for example: and its prohibition policy, Why bans are best. Bloomberg’s approach to evidence and data on tobacco is discussed here: Michael Bloomberg loves data. Except when he doesn’t.

WHO is conflicted by the funding it receives from pro-prohibition Bloomberg Philanthropies ($23m). Then there is also the much larger WHO donor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ($592m), which supports a range of organisations hostile to tobacco harm reduction. In addition, there are also pharmaceutical companies like GSK ($12.3m) that provide multi-million dollar donations to WHO but take a hostile stance toward e-cigarettes.

Note that this money does not have to be spent on anti-vaping campaigns for the policy position of the donor and the donation to create a conflict. The point is that anti-vaping organisations play a significant role in WHO’s finances.

9. What further information is available?

WHO provides sources that are consistent with its position, but does not introduce contrary or balancing perspectives.

Links to WHO reports with further information on e-cigarettes or ENDS to which the reader can refer are provided below:

WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2021. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2021

Ghebreyesus TA. (2019). Progress in beating the tobacco epidemic. Lancet. (published online July 26)

WHO Study Group on Tobacco Product Regulation. Report on the scientific basis of tobacco product regulation: seventh report of a

WHO study group. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2019 (WHO Technical Report Series, No. 1015). Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO

FCTC/COP6 10 Rev 1 (2014) –WHO. Electronic nicotine delivery systems. Report by WHO, Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, sixth session

FCTC/COP7/11 (2016) – WHO. Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems and Electronic Non-Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS/ENNDS). Report by WHO, Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Seventh session

These documents repeat many of the errors in the Q & A and would either need to be read critically or not at all. I would advise the wise and curious reader to consult the following:

  • 15 former presidents of SRNT essay: Balfour, D. J. K., Benowitz, N. L., Colby, S. M., Hatsukami, et al. (2021). Balancing Consideration of the Risks and Benefits of E-Cigarettes. American Journal of Public Health, 111(9), 1661–1672. [here]
  • Public Health England: E-cigarette Evidence Review series 2015 onwards [here]
  • Letter to parties to the WHO FCTC calling for a new approach to tobacco harm reduction signed by 100 international experts, October 2021 [here][PDF]
  • A response to Gebreysesus (2019) listed above: Beaglehole, R., Bates, C., Youdan, B., & Bonita, R. (2019). Nicotine without smoke: fighting the tobacco epidemic with harm reduction. The Lancet, 394(10200), 718–720. [here]

Fake news: the WHO Q & A on e-cigarettes

The use of crudely false and misleading information puts WHO’s reputation and its whole mission at risk. International public bodies like the WHO rely on public trust and the confidence of politicians and the media to have their effect. If no one believes what they say, then they lose their leverage.

Evolving the propaganda. This Q & A was first published in January 2020 and had to be rapidly amended when obvious and basic flaws were pointed out. It was updated again on 25th May 2022. You can view the evolution of this web page on my side-by-side tracker here – the trend is towards increasing confusion and doubt.

Merchants of doubt? It looks like and probably is a Merchants of Doubt information operation. When people with genuine public health convictions have to correct misinformation from WHO to help smokers improve their health, how is that different from correcting misinformation from the tobacco industry of the past? One difference is that WHO starts with an endowment of trust. The tobacco industry never had that.

My blog about the first two versions is here: World Health Organisation fails at science and fails at propaganda – the sad case of WHO’s anti-vaping Q&A

Bullshit asymmetry principle. Communications like WHO’s Q & A on e-cigarettes provide a good example of the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle – they take an order of magnitude more effort to correct than to produce (witness the length of this post). To fully address the bullshit in WHO’s short Q & A would take tens of thousands of words and hundreds of citations.

Perils of fake news. Simple but false and misleading is the norm in a post-truth world, but WHO will soon discover that the reputation of an international public body can be eaten alive if it decides to swim in that particular swamp.

4 thoughts on “Fake news alert: WHO updates its post-truth fact sheet on e-cigarettes”

  1. La mafia de la oms, sigue con su política de besar el culo a las supranacionales

  2. Excellent work. I’m only too well aware how much work (and sweat, and tears) goes into critiquing the vast amount of scaremongering fake news that is generated by the so-called health organisations. We just go round and round with mostly the same ANTZ delirious fantasies from the last ten years. Your stamina is impressive.

    One thing you didn’t critique was in WHO point 5, where they use the word “particle” when describing vapour. This has been a very sore point ever since Glantz seized on it somewhere around 2013 and used it to correlate the real harms from smoking with the imaginary harms of vaping. A particle is a solid (eg carbon with tar) that is one of the things that apparently damages (or contributes damage to) the lung tissue.

    Vapour contains zero significant solid particles. They are droplets (liquid) most probably vegetable glycerine carrying a large amount of water molecules. Not injurious at all since they are not significantly toxic and are removed from the lung by natural processes the same as for any deposited liquid (eg steam)

    The use of the word “particle” is one of those hidden slights that are used to sow FUD* in the minds of the reader. I think of it as the “particle fallacy” which seems to slip under the radar of THR advocates, but the ANTZ still stick it in there knowing it has great FUD value.

    It’s our own (vapers) fault this lie took off. Back in 2013 we were searching for reasons why vaped nicotine did not act as fast as smoking to relieve smoking withdrawal symptoms: that first vape of the day was seriously not doing the job and this is still a problem for people who have just switched completely to vapour. The theory at the time was that vapour “particles”, as we said, were larger than smoke particles and so could not go deeper into the lung. We should never have used the word particle in this context because I believe it was picked up on. Droplets and particles are not the same thing, but Glantz actually released a paper using this very thing to besmirch vaping.

    Almost ten years on I am now pretty certain the problem has nothing to do with *droplet* size and everything to do with biochemistry – the pH of the nicotine we mostly use and the absence of other alkaloids that are present in cigarette smoke. It’s actually the prime indicator for vaping not being the same in terms of creating dependency. ie we *know* how to make it the same, but we choose not to.

    Chris Robinson

    *FUD
    Do I have to explain this acronym? I don’t know, I’m older than dirt.
    Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. FUD. Back in the early days of IBM (the Watson era right up to the 1970’s) marketing campaigns would use loaded wording to inspire FUD in competitor’s products. Without actually criticising a competitor it was possible to use wording in advertising that could overcome the fact that a competitor actually had better products for less money. In the context of ANTZ campaigns such as the “WHO Q&A” the FUD objective is seen throughout in loaded wording and outright lies of omission.

    It’s almost like the ability to generate FUD is part of the human psyche… such as IBM trying to bolster their position despite the inability to keep abreast of advances in computer science, and ANTZ inability to embrace THR technology.

    CR

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