The WHO meetings that never are or were

You may think this stinks like a week old fish. There is a WHO meeting taking place this week for three days which you will not have heard of. That’s because you are not meant to. It is the intention of the WHO and FCTC Secretariat that the meeting takes place in secret and those present do not report its discussions. Ever. 

Copwatch alerted readers to the Global Tobacco Regulators Forum (GTRF) last year. We described it as a “WHO meeting organised behind closed doors” which excludes key stakeholders including “sovereign nations who are signatories to the FCTC.”

Say what you like about the COP meetings but at least there are documents published, eventually, to let the public know what happened. COP10, like previous meetings, will also allow all 182 signatories to the treaty (national governments) to have their say before making legally binding decisions. Neither is true of the GTRF, which conducts its affairs like a beast in the attic, totally unseen. It also comprises just 10 to 15 carefully selected countries. So, not really a ‘global’ meeting at all. 

Thanks to the Indian Ministry of Health’s list of international events, we know that the latest meeting of this shadowy group is taking place from 25 to 27 April. Meeting minutes will not be published and what is discussed will not be revealed to most Parties to the FCTC, let alone the public. 

The USA’s Food and Drug Administration has been funding the GTRF meetings for a decade since 2013, and has already planned further grants for the next five years which will bring the total up to $9.25 million. Ironic considering that the United States is not even a Party to the FCTC treaty yet FDA officials are part of the GTRF steering committee.

Maybe it is just an innocent chit-chat, right? No. 
The WHO study group on tobacco product regulation, known as TobReg (a group of nine so-called experts) collates evidence to inform Parties to the treaty in advance of COP meetings. The latest TobReg report has made references to unpublished GTRF papers in its guidance for COP10.

This is what delegations to COP10 are being presented with before this year’s meeting. A small group of researchers, who are not keen on tobacco harm reduction, cherry-picking studies which agree with their preconceived beliefs, and citing unpublished papers from a small selection of WHO members resulting from secret meetings which are not minuted, all funded by a country which is not a Party to the Convention. 

Many of you, like us, will be of the view that this whiffs like a sea bass well past its prime. But for the FCTC Secretariat, it’s just another day in the office, manipulating signatories to the treaty and abusing its position and purpose. 

Although we know that this GTRF meeting is taking place in India this week, that is all we will ever know. It seems that the WHO has only two rules on the matter. The first rule is that they do not talk about GTRF. The second rule is: they DO NOT talk about GTRF!

It appears that, when it comes to the FCTC treaty, some signatories are more equal than others.

Who is the new WHO French guy?

The World Health Organization’s Director General has appointed a new leadership team following his re-election last year. Naturally, we are interested in who has been handed the brief of overseeing the WHO’s future efforts towards smoking and nicotine. 

According to Health Policy Watch, the appointee is Dr Jérôme Salomon from France, who will act as Assistant Director-General for Universal Health Coverage, Communicable and Non-communicable Diseases. Copwatch believes it prudent that his credentials be checked for suitability in such an important role so we have investigated his track record.

Firstly, it appears that he finds mathematics challenging. In 2019, in his position as director of the General Directorate for Health (DGS) he appeared on French TV confidently stating that half of all French high school students were vaping and that one in six were doing so every day. Embarrassingly for Jérôme, this merely highlighted his confusion. 

As explained by Vapolitique, Jérôme’s statement misunderstood not one, but two, different surveys. 50.3% of students in just one city, Saint-Etienne not France, had said they experimented with vaping, but Jérôme failed to mention that the study also recorded only 3.6% were doing so daily. The Saint-Etienne survey was also not consistent with national data which showed lower vaping use nationally. 

His claim that one in six were vaping daily is arguably more embarrassing. Although the French Observatory of Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT) study applied across France, the percentage of adolescents Jérôme cited were only recorded as vaping once or more, not daily. We are certain that this was a compound error brought about by a misunderstanding of data and he was not lying to the public, of course.  

Jérôme later generated controversy with his role in France’s COVID-19 efforts. In 2018, he had ordered destruction of face masks to save money which meant, when the virus struck, the country suffered a shortage of supplies. The administrative court of Paris found that, instead of admitting the mistake, Jérôme ordered a scientific report be changed to justify his decision. This led one Senator to remark that “faced with the shortage of masks, instead of speaking the truth, the government masked the shortage.”

Having survived that scandal, Jérôme set about to further his work extinguishing vaping products as a means of quitting smoking. Between 2016 and 2019, smoking rates plummeted in France due to the advent of vaping. The government reacted to this by including vaping in their annual stop smoking event, Mois Sans Tabac (Month Without Tobacco). Consumer organisations were recruited to give expert advice on how vaping can help smokers quit, understandable considering vaping had become the most popular cessation method. 

Jérôme took office as head of DGS in 2018 and proceeded to reverse this progress. He set up a committee to discuss tobacco control in France and personally opposed the participation of consumer groups in the process without giving any justification. In 2022, Mois Sans Tabac went ahead without any mention of vaping products, effectively eradicated over time by Jérôme. As consumer group La Vape Du Coeur remarked, “How is it that the most popular (and most effective) means of risk reduction was so hidden during this emblematic month of the fight against tobacco?” having been embraced from 2016 previously. 

To sum up, the WHO’s new head of policy on tobacco and nicotine has shown he is incapable of understanding quantitative research, is willing to massage scientific data to hide inconvenient facts, refuses to listen to consumers, and is ideologically opposed to vaping despite its track record of reducing smoking rates in his country. 

Jérôme is a perfect fit for the WHO. But for the good of global public health, not so much.

Panamanian party poopers?

Past COP events have occasionally been somewhat embarrassing for the WHO. Could COP10 follow this trend? 

Who can forget when an outbreak of Ebola in Africa in the run-up to COP6 in 2014 presented then WHO Director General, Margaret Chan, with a dilemma? Should she travel to Africa, where a lethal disease was brutally killing citizens, or to the COP6 Moscow venue to chat about tobacco over tea with Vladimir Putin? She chose the latter, naturally. 

Or COP7 in New Delhi where delegates from all over the world convened to discuss exaggerated health threats from vaping just as one of the worst smogs in living memory descended on the city. The New York Times reported that over 1,800 schools were closed and the public exposed to pollution equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, as if to remind the WHO what a real public health crisis looks like on the eve of their flagship tobacco control event.  

The last Copwatch post reported on Dr. Reina Roa, who has accepted an award from Bloomberg Philanthropies and is now being investigated by Panamanian authorities for “administrative irregularities” over what is a clear conflict of interest in her role as an “independent” adviser to the Ministry of Health.

Dr. Roa would appear to be an odd choice for an independent adviser considering she has been a Ministry of Health employee since 1986, with latest filings showing she is paid $4,294 per month, roughly five times the average Panamanian salary.  

As well as being feted by Bloomberg acolytes, Dr. Roa is extremely close to the WHO, having led ratification of the FCTC treaty and having served as Representative at the FCTC Bureau Conference of the Parties for the Americas Region (AMRO). She is also so embedded in the Panamanian establishment that her former husband was one of the closest advisers to notorious Panama dictator, Manuel Noriega (see below). 

Surprising as it is that she was appointed to the role, the perceived bias that acceptance of a Bloomberg award would suggest may not have worked out very well for the enemies of harm reduction. The investigation of Dr. Roa seems to have opened up a wider debate. 

All alternative nicotine products are currently prohibited in Panama but this is now being revisited. According to the gloriously-named Mr Cigarruista, of the Association for the Reduction of Harm from Smoking in Panama, a bill has been presented to the National Assembly that proposes regulating vaping products to replace the current ban. 

The November jamboree is fast approaching and delegates are starting to book their accommodation for a COP10 meeting which carries many threats for vaping and other harm reduction products. The WHO’s FCTC Secretariat has been working hard to guide delegations into agreeing decisions at COP10 to ban or heavily restrict reduced risk nicotine products all over the world. It will be somewhat embarrassing for the WHO if, at the same time, their host country is discussing proposals to implement common sense over vaping products and reverse prohibition.

How unfortunate that would be for the WHO. Our hearts bleed for them.

Where’s Bloomby? Check the atlas

You have to hand it to Bloomberg Philanthropies. They are very good at finding public servants willing to exchange their statutory obligation to be impartial for a pat on the back and a pretty bauble. Like the Where’s Wally books, you never know where they may turn up next.

The latest target of Bloomberg’s ongoing programme to influence government policies in low and middle income countries is Panama. Yes, the Panama where COP10 will be held later this year. That Panama. 

The country’s National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI) has accepted a complaint against Dr. Reina Roa, Coordinator of the National Tobacco Control Commission of the Ministry of Health (MINSA).

The charge is that the Panamanian Coalition Against Tabaquismo (COPACET), of which she is founder, has accepted a Bloomberg Philanthropies Award for Global Tobacco Control as a reward for successfully designing public policies favoured by the world’s biggest privately-owned anti-harm reduction lobbyist.

Dr. Roa is now being investigated by Panamanian authorities for “administrative irregularities” over what is a clear conflict of interest in her role as an “independent” adviser to the Ministry of Health. For it is difficult to imagine Dr. Roa being particularly eager to present both sides of the debate on harm reduction to her government while being celebrated in this way, is it not?

For those who may believe they have read this story before, you may be thinking of The Philippines. In 2021, Bloomberg Philanthropies were caught red-handed giving grants to the Philippines FDA to not only influence its future policy, but to physically draft and file a parliamentary bill to be presented to the country’s legislature.

Or perhaps you may be thinking of any number of other countries where Bloomberg front groups have been attempting to meddle in government policymaking, such as Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Indonesia, Ukraine, Bosnia, and Vietnam. Take your pick.

One must wonder why Bloomberg’s acolytes are going to such lengths to interfere in government affairs in so many countries, often putting the reputations of public officials at risk and leading them to break their constitutional and legal obligations. Is it not a waste of their time and resources if truth and objective science is on their side?

Or maybe, just maybe, this colonialist manipulation of smaller countries is precisely because Bloomberg Philanthropies are worried that the little guys on the world stage might see through the propaganda and act in the public health interests of their citizens, and that just would not do, especially in advance of COP10.

We trust that Dr. Roa will keep that award polished while she is being questioned on perceived lack of due impartiality by Panama’s authorities. In the meantime, we will watch out for the next far-flung government to be visited by Bloomby’s minions and their fistful of dollars.