The WHO publishes anonymously-written papers designed to gaslight Parties at COP10

The one where COP delegates are invited to take opinions about vapes on trust

Copwatch has detailed many instances of the WHO and FCTC Secretariat playing fast and loose with evidence or cherry-picking research to suit its anti-harm reduction agenda. It is unscientific and shameful but nothing we have not seen before. But two new reports, on disposable vapes and nicotine pouches, have been published on a separate page to the main COP10 menu which seem specifically designed to mislead COP10 delegates based on nothing more than opinion. 

There is much that could be challenged in them, but the problem would be who to approach considering they are written anonymously. Are senior government officials attending the meeting in Panama from around the world expected to just take the misinformation on trust? 

Let’s discuss the first which concerns single use vapes (which the document charmlessly calls D-ENDS) and contains a number of unreferenced assumptions. 

Without any link to research, it claims that “there is a risk that [the] metal coil will release heavy metals in the heating process.” There may well be a risk, but there also may not. Students are discouraged from referring to Wikipedia for their studies, but at least entries there are rejected if an assumption is not backed up by a credible source. This WHO document does not concern itself with such probity despite being designed for the much more important role of educating government representatives about a vital area of public health. 

It asserts that “the addition of flavourings increases the toxicity of ENDS aerosol in a significant manner”, again without any evidence by way of back up. A Wikipedia reviewer would add [citation needed] but the WHO doesn’t seem to think it necessary. 

The document complains that “we also observe a strong industry lobbying activity to regulate newer products (heated tobacco products, or HTPs, snus and nicotine pouches, and ENDS in all its forms) as little as possible”, which those who recognise the significant benefits of harm reduction would find sensible. Parties are told to ignore this though because – and this may make your jaw drop – the WHO accuses industry of “insisting on rhetoric pretending that they are a “safer” alternative to tobacco products.”

Pretending? There is absolutely no doubt that those products are less harmful than combustible tobacco, with acres of scientific research to support the difference in risk. There is no pretence about it. The only fantasists here are the authors if they believe lower risk nicotine delivery is not safer. If so, how can they be qualified to write papers for the WHO? 

It is also worth noting that consumers and independent scientists are also in favour of light touch regulation, not just industry. Put this down as another flimsy attempt to cast harm reduction as an industry plot rather than a significant public health opportunity. 

It further criticises EU regulations on the strength of nicotine liquids, claiming that 20mg/ml “is already considered a strong concentration” but fails to say by whom. Many would disagree. No reference is given. 

Then the anonymous author or (authors) delve further into cloud cuckoo land. They “stress” that surveys show “D-ENDS prevalence was significantly on the rise and for most other products (HTPs, snus, nicotine pouches) prevalence had increased, and that no significant decrease was observed in cigarette prevalence.” 

Japanese sales of tobacco have declined by around 50% since heated tobacco products hit the market and the UK government recently agreed that vapes “are up to twice as effective as the available licensed nicotine replacement.” One must also wonder how the anonymous authors have missed the fact that Sweden is about to reach the EU smokefree 2040 target of less than 5% smoking prevalence 17 years early thanks to snus use. The WHO document also dreams that “young people could hyperventilate with a D-ENDS”[citation needed], and that “it is usually considered that an Elf bar 800 gives a nicotine equivalent of 60 cigarettes.” This is a regularly-cited snippet of disinformation amongst those opposed to vaping which has been succinctly dismissed as a myth by Action on Smoking and Health in the UK.

After cataloguing red herrings, myths, unsubstantiated opinion and unscientific rumour, our anonymous authors sum up by recommending that “many policies effective against tobacco should be implemented against disposable ENDS as well (plain packages, flavour bans, taxation, full advertisement bans, selling only under a licence system, etc.)”

Copwatch would like to ask a few questions. Who wrote this? What are their qualifications? Why are they offering nothing more than opinions without adequately backing them up with links? Why should Parties believe assertions which are supported by less evidence than would be considered necessary for a half-decent blog? 

The WHO and FCTC Bureau should not be in the business of publishing opinion pieces, which is the only way this document can be described. 

Most importantly, it would be dereliction of duty for Parties to COP10 to take this unevidenced, unprofessional, and superficial guidance seriously when contemplating recommendations in Panama for global regulations.

Introducing the authors of the COP10 agenda – the FCTC Bureau

The New Nicotine Alliance in the UK has done a good job of highlighting the threats to harm reduction which could materialise at COP10 in this document. Their call to action lists them as being:

  • A ban on all open system vaping products
  • A ban of all flavours except tobacco
  • A ban on nicotine salts in vaping products
  • Regulating products so that they are all exactly the same and restrict delivery of nicotine
  • Demanding that countries around the world treat vaping and heated tobacco products the same as combustible tobacco
  • Taxation at the same rate as cigarettes, banning use where smoking is prohibited, large graphic health warnings, plain packaging, and a ban on all advertising, promotion and sponsorship

The nature of these may seem far-fetched to the casual reader, so how realistic is it that what seems to be a full-on assault on vaping will make it onto the COP10 agenda? 

Copwatch decided to investigate by looking at the make-up of the FCTC Bureau, the body which will be writing the agenda. It would be preferable if they published their November and March meeting minutes so we could read the plans first-hand but, as Copwatch reported previously, it seems their typewriter is still at the repairers. 

The Bureau comprises six representatives, one from each of the WHO’s regions, and its role is to make policy proposals which are then circulated to regional coordinators. Surely they will reject the outlandish attacks on vaping and other products contained in WHO reports circulated to the Parties, won’t they? 

The five Vice-Presidents come from Uruguay, Netherlands, Australia, Sri Lanka and Oman. Each of their country policies on vaping are listed below:
Uruguay, vaping products are banned.
Sri Lanka, vaping products are banned.
Oman, vaping products are banned.
Australia, vaping products are banned without a prescription (which are hard to come by).

Netherlands, vaping products are allowed but, from July, e-liquid will be restricted to contain just 16 ingredients which make it impossible to form any flavour at all, including tobacco. The Presidency of the Bureau is held by Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) which has no specific law regarding vaping products, though we are sure it will have soon judging by the company its Bureau representative keeps.

We suppose there is a chance that these fine, upstanding, Bureau-crats will take heed of the increasing evidence that vaping is a huge potential prize for public health around the globe and set a sensible agenda for COP10. Probably about the same chance that we at Copwatch have of flying to the moon.

Where are the FCTC Bureau meeting minutes?

It seems that the long march towards a triumphant COP10 later this year must surely have encountered a hitch. The second meeting of the FCTC Bureau took place at the end of November 2022, but here we are at the start of March and the minutes of their last meeting have still not been published. Has their typewriter broken?

The role of the Bureau is to make proposals which are then circulated to regional coordinators. Considering the next Bureau meeting is scheduled for 27-28 March, it does not leave much time to enable the regions to digest what has gone before.

Items at the November meeting would have likely included discussions about the provisional COP10 agenda, requests from parties for elements to be included and maybe details for delegates of the hosting arrangements in Panama. Quite important information.

It is difficult to believe that the regions will not be eager to learn about these matters, so the delay is inconvenient, to say the least.

Or is it that the Bureau is communicating with regions behind the scenes and are reluctant to publish their minutes for the public to see just yet?

We look forward to the typewriter engineers being available to fix this problem soon, and look forward to the belated publication of the Bureau minutes so that the famous WHO FCTC reputation for openness and transparency is protected.