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COP 7 – WHO do you think you are?

The World Health Organization was set up in 1946, and for 70 years it’s been seen as one of the great achievements of the United Nations. It played a major part in eliminating smallpox, the only human disease that’s been totally defeated so far. It’s helped fight malaria, cholera and other infectious diseases, and has saved millions of lives.

Recently, however, the WHO’s popularity has been fading. The reason is simple: It’s stopped doing what it was set up to do – fight disease – and started to focus on people’s lifestyle choices instead. A series of controversial statements and reports has come out of Geneva, especially since Margaret Chan became director in 2006. The WHO’s anti-obesity campaign has promoted sugar reductions that aren’t backed up by any independent science and praised North Korea, which has starved 15% of its people to death since the 1990s. There’s concern that Chan and senior figures around her are too closely linked to the pharmaceutical industry. Then the WHO grossly exaggerated the severity of the 2009 swine flu outbreak, before bungling the Ebola epidemic that ravaged West Africa in 2014 and 2015.

However, the most severe criticism has focused on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a WHO initiative aimed at reducing smoking. The FCTC is the first UN treaty created by the WHO, and it’s legally binding on the 180 countries that have signed and ratified it.

What’s it all about?

In principle the FCTC shouldn’t be too controversial. There’s no doubt that smoking is bad for you, and the basic rules of the Convention are aimed at helping smokers quit and protecting non-smokers from secondhand smoke. Member countries also have to limit advertising, tax tobacco products and limit industry lobbying.

Tobacco control isn’t just about health warnings and advertising bans any more, though. Harm reduction is becoming prominent, as experts recognize that a lot of smokers just won’t quit unless a safer alternative is available. This isn’t a new concept, of course. Harm reduction products like nicotine patches and gum have been around for a long time – they just aren’t very popular or effective. What’s changed is the rise of vaping. The WHO might be expected to embrace e-cigarettes as a powerful weapon against lit tobacco. Instead, they absolutely hate them.

Since vapor products started to become popular the WHO has relentlessly briefed against them. It’s exaggerated health concerns, denied evidence that they’re an attractive alternative to smoking and refused to consider them as a valid harm reduction product. Over the last few years, as medical opinion slowly moves towards accepting vaping, the WHO has dug its heels in and seems to be taking an ever harder line. That showed up clearly last week in Delhi.

FCTC does most of its business through a series of biennial meetings known as the Conference of Parties. Electronic cigarettes first became a major discussion topic at COP 6, held in Moscow two years ago. COP 6 wasn’t widely reported, partly because it was overshadowed by the Ebola epidemic (Margaret Chan falsely told the media she was working on Ebola control when in fact she was at COP 6). However there was some criticism of the FCTC secretariat’s heavy-handed approach. Like all other UN organizations FCTC is committed to ensuring maximum transparency, but on the first day of COP 6 public observers, and then the media, were expelled from the conference. Whatever the delegates discussed, they did it in secret. The only clues to what they talked about are in the “Report” issued after the conference.

Prevention of a cure…

The COP 6 report has a section on electronic cigarettes, which reveals that at COP 5 delegates had agreed to look into options for the “prevention and control” of vapor products. Right away it’s obvious that WHO is not looking at vaping as an opportunity; instead, it’s seen as a threat.

Digging a little deeper reveals some interesting points. For example the secretariat requested a report on the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as an alternative to tobacco. Some delegations objected to that – because it might find evidence that they are effective. This is clearly not an organization that’s too worried about following where the evidence leads.

So when FCTC began gearing up for COP 7, held in Delhi last week, advocates were watching with concern. In September they released a report on vapor products, which they call by the clunky acronym ENDS (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems).

The pre-COP 7 report was a bit of a mixed bag. Some advocates saw it as slightly more positive, because it seemed to acknowledge that e-cigarettes could be an alternative to smoking. However, in the same paragraph it claimed that switching from smoking to vaping was only a good thing if you then quit vaping too.

Then it got worse.

Despite having admitted that vaping could kind of sort of maybe not be too bad, the report went on to suggest a range of restrictions – no vaping in enclosed public places, no flavors, no advertising and all the other usual nonsense. It basically the recent pro-vaping reports from Public Health England and the Royal College of Physicians, while repeating debunked scares about formaldehyde and heavy metals. Overall there was a lot of worrying stuff in it.

The Delhi disaster

So, on to COP 7. Several independent journalists and advocates had registered for the conference in the hope of actually being allowed to watch it – one of them was vaper and blogger Dick Puddlecote, and I’ll be posting an interview with him in the next few days. True to form, however, FCTC decided to evict the press and public on the first day. This led to some undignified scenes where at least two journalists were manhandled by FCTC staff, and delegates refused to answer questions from their own country’s media about the lack of transparency.

Dissent against FCTC’s secrecy and paranoia is growing, though, and a steady flow of information leaked its way out from behind the closed doors – while FCTC staff and members of anti-vaping NGOs stalked and harassed advocates around the conference venue. For three days nothing much seemed to happen, as delegates tinkered with minor changes to the wording of the previous report. Then, on the fourth day of the conference, the trap was sprung. Delegates from a group of countries led by India and Thailand suddenly demanded that WHO recommend a total ban on the manufacture, sale and use of e-cigarettes. It probably isn’t a coincidence that India and Thailand both have large state-owned tobacco industries.

The proposal was finally defeated and the COP 7 report isn’t much different from the COP 6 one; it does suggest prohibition as an option, but also leaves open other routes. But we can expect that COP 8, in 2018, will see a stronger push for prohibition.

The question is, do the antics at COP 7 matter to American vapers? The USA has signed the FCTC, but hasn’t ratified it – so whatever it decides isn’t legally binding. Even if the WHO recommends a ban the US government doesn’t have to listen to them. But here’s the problem: The US government does listen to pressure groups like Tobacco Free Kids, the American Heart Association and all the other organizations that oppose vaping for reasons of their own.

 Many of those groups had representatives at COP 7, and you can be sure they’re meeting with congresspeople and state legislators right now – telling them how the saintly WHO, which conquered smallpox and slashed malaria deaths by 50% worldwide, thinks e-cigs are death in a stick. GW Bush might not have put the FCTC before the Senate for ratification, but it’s still going to be used to attack your right to vape. That means you need to understand just how corrupt and secretive FCTC really is, so you can meet your representatives and counter the WHO’s propaganda.

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