WHO abdicating its responsibility with clampdown on vaping
It would be fair to say that the World Health Organization (WHO) has not exactly covered itself in glory with its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
First, it was too slow to declare a global health emergency, dragging its feet when urgent action was required. Then it conducted a farcical “investigation” into the virus’s possible origin in a Wuhan laboratory. Finally, when a global response to a global crisis was so obviously needed, the WHO has presided over a series of fragmented, xenophobic policies based on national priorities rather than international cooperation.
Guys, you’re supposed to be the “World” Health Organization — there’s a clue in the name.
Now, in its latest foray into public health — a demand for prohibitive curbs on the sale and use of vaping devices — the WHO has declared war on an enemy that gave up fighting years ago: Tobacco companies.
Big Tobacco is, of course, arguably fair game. More than 8 million people a year die from tobacco use or exposure to tobacco smoke, and countless millions before them died while the tobacco industry covered up evidence that their product was lethal, and systematically lied about its deadly effects.
There is, however, something unpleasantly vindictive about the WHO’s attack on the tobacco companies, which now manufacture many of the vaping devices that are weaning smokers off the tobacco habit. “I don’t believe… that all of a sudden you turn from being the real problem to being part of the solution,” says Ruediger Krech, director of the WHO’s department of health promotion.
Really? Why not?
The organization is threatening to deny millions of ex-smokers easy access to a lifesaving alternative to tobacco.
Krupp, the German industrial conglomerate, produced the arms and ammunition that killed millions from the 17th century to the Second World War, but it now manufactures much of the world’s railway infrastructure. Hugo Boss, which supplied uniforms for the Hitler Youth and Waffen-SS in Nazi Germany, is now one of the world’s leading fashion houses. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Krech has traveled on a Krupp-built train while wearing a Hugo Boss suit. Is it only tobacco companies that are beyond redemption?
More seriously, in its determination to punish the tobacco companies for having the temerity to switch from a lethal product to a benign one, the WHO is not only flying in the face of all available evidence, it is actually endangering the health of the people it is supposed to protect.
In its report on vaping, published on Tuesday, the WHO speaks approvingly of the 32 countries where the sale and use of vaping devices is banned. For a public health body, that is an utterly preposterous position to take. In those 32 countries, people are still free to endanger their lives by smoking tobacco, but prohibited by law from using devices that, in survey after survey, have been shown beyond doubt to be the most effective method currently available to enable smokers to quit.
The WHO’s bias is clear in its use of the term “electronic cigarette.” A cigarette is a paper tube filled with tobacco, to which users apply a flame and inhale the resulting smoke. A vaping device contains no tobacco, requires no flame, and creates no smoke. It is not a “cigarette,” electronic or otherwise, and in suggesting that it is, the WHO is guilty of demonization by association.
Its assumption seems to be that the choice is between vaping and inhaling only clean fresh air. If that were indeed the choice, then only a fool would vape — but for ex-smokers, who comprise the overwhelming majority of adult vapers, it is not. Nicotine is a relatively harmless substance, but it is addictive, perhaps even more so than heroin. For ex-smokers, the choice is between vaping and returning to the tobacco habit.
The WHO is right to demand strict regulation to curb the sale of vaping devices to young people who have never smoked tobacco, and there is evidence that some irresponsible manufacturers’ advertising campaigns are aimed at just that market. That should be stamped out.
But in its demand for blanket curbs on the sale and use of vaping devices, the WHO is threatening to deny millions of ex-smokers easy access to a lifesaving alternative to tobacco and abdicating its responsibility to protect global public health.
- Ross Anderson is associate editor of Arab News.