Human rights alert at #COP10

The FCTC Secretariat is working behind the scenes to impose a narrow view on human rights and tobacco within the UN system and amongst countries (the Parties to the Convention).

At a recent progress meeting of the UN Non-Communicable Disease Task Force Lynn Gentile from the UN Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasised that a ‘Human rights framework is indispensable to how we respond to health challenges such as NCDs and mental health’.

Tobacco was a key theme of the meeting. It was reported that Task Force members had agreed plans for ‘ensuring [a] successful conference and meeting of Parties on the Tobacco Control Framework Convention in Panama..’. This is an example of how UN officials work behind the scenes to influence the outcomes of Convention meetings.

It is also reported that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the FCTC Convention Secretariat are finalising a set of policy briefs that will provide governments with information about how tobacco control impacts different sectors. These documents will likely be made available at the last minute and are not on the published COP agenda.

Under its current leader Adriana Blanco Marquizo, the Convention Secretariat has anchored  its work across the whole UN system including on human rights. It presents a narrow view of tobacco control to other UN agencies which may have little specialist knowledge about tobacco.

The Secretariat report to COP (FCTC/COP/10/15)  on how human rights intersect with the work of the FCTC is one-sided and thin. It includes statements about protecting individuals from tobacco smoke, mention of the right to life, and mention of the highest attainable state of health and the rights of children and tobacco growers. The Secretariat fails to mention another stream of human rights work within the UN system, in which access to harm reduction resources is a key part of the right to health.  International human rights law supports harm reduction, a case initially made by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and now acknowledged by many UN agencies who work on drugs and on HIV harm reduction. Access to safer nicotine products can be seen as part of the right to health in that people should be able to choose safer alternatives to smoking.

As Copwatch has been at pains to point out, tobacco harm reduction (THR) is, so far, absent from COP10. None of the documents nor reports intended to influence the Parties mention that safer nicotine products offer any opportunities for individual and public health. Safer nicotine products are presented as a threat to tobacco control, rather than as having potential to divert people from smoking and other risky tobacco use. 

The COP documents class all tobacco products together, and do not distinguish between high risk tobacco products and safer alternatives. We predict that the narrow human rights perspective proposed by the Secretariat will present safer nicotine products as much of a threat to the right to health as cigarettes. THR consumer advocacy groups are highlighting the right to access safer nicotine products. In an open letter addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – Volker Türk – 52 civil society organisations highlight the urgency of adopting strategies based on harm reduction and the right to health (see here for the English version). They ask that the UN system recognises harm reduction as obligatory under the right to health and that he encourages the WHO to recognise the legitimacy of harm reduction in relation to smoking, to encourage states to adopt harm reduction policies, and to encourage the participation of consumer groups at COP. It will be interesting to see the reply.

FCTC budget: nice work if you can get it

Here Copwatch brings you what you need to know about the COP10 documents relating to the FCTC budget. This covers three documents, all posted on the COP10 main documents page:

FCTC/COP/10/17 Proposed Workplan and Budget for the financial period 2024–2025, 

FCTC/COP/10/18 WHO FCTC Investment Fund, and

FCTC/COP/10/19 Rev.1 Payment of Assessed Contributions and measures to reduce Parties in arrears 

The first thing you need to know is that 59 Parties have not paid their contributions. That’s around one third of the FCTC membership. You should also know that the biggest funder of the FCTC is China. As we know, China is also home to the China Tobacco monopoly, the biggest cigarette company in the world.

Second, in the 2024-2025 period, the FCTC plans to spend some 17 million USD in direct expenses, excluding recovery costs (10/19 Rev1).  Almost half of this is for the salaries of WHO bureaucrats. Some 2 million USD out of the 8 million USD budgeted for salaries is expected to be covered by “extra-budgetary” contributions.  It seems likely that the ‘extra-budgetary’ contributions will come from rich donors, who will set the agenda in line with their interests, not the interests of people who smoke or the countries they reside in.

The single biggest non-salary cost, by far, is… the hosting of COP11 at almost 1.7 million USD. Copwatch is confused! In August, it was revealed that there was outrage in Panama at the revelation that the Ministry of Health (Minsa) had spent “$4,881,732.20 for the organisation of a conference against tobacco.” Is this 1.7 million USD in addition to that?

Now, how do you like that as a taxpayer? Given how secretive COPs are, you certainly won’t be able to judge if you are getting value for your money. 

Third, we are guessing that the investment fund launched at COP9 is not doing well. But, we can only guess, as there is nothing written down about that, instead it is promised that “the Convention Secretariat will provide a verbal update at the Tenth session of the COP (COP10) on the status of investment for the Fund.” (10/18). 

These documents reveal that the FCTC has run into another problem – that nobody wants to serve on the two oversight committees (“it was challenging to attract qualified candidates” – see 10/18). One committee was intended to serve the WHO FCTC Investment Fund and the other committee was for the Investment Fund to support the implementation of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products (for which not a single person expressed interest to serve). As a result, the FCTC Secretariat proposes to merge the two committees into one, and will define its purpose, functions, authority, composition and selection, and various other administrative matters.

Here’s the problem with that proposal: the Oversight Committee members are supposed to be proposed by the Selection Committee. Who is the Selection Committee? The President and one Vice-President of the governing body of each treaty, as well as the Head of the Convention Secretariat. In other words, the people with the oversight are appointed by the very same people that they are supposed to oversee. Re-appointment of the Oversight Committee is again up to the Selection Committee.  

But does it really matter? We’re not so sure because the Oversight Committee is purely advisory and has no management, decision-making, or operational responsibility. It need only meet two times per year, and its recommendations can be fully disregarded by the COP and MOP. Finally, in line with the WHO’s ethos of covering things up, the minutes of the Oversight Committee meetings and their recommendations are to be provided to the COP and MOP bureaus only, and not shared with the COP or the MOP, or made public.

In summary:  the FCTC spends almost half of its money on its own salaries. The biggest funder is China, and some salaries are funded by wealthy donors (think Michael Bloomberg). The proposed rules ensure that no meaningful budget oversight will take place in the future. I think that we may have just solved the mystery of what is behind the WHO’s insane war on safer nicotine.

The road to FCTC #COP10

COP10 preparations are advancing when it comes to the FCTC Secretariat. The provisional agenda and some other documents were published earlier this month.

Going from the agenda we can expect a fully packed discussion on substantive items. Readers will remember that COP9 was virtual and that although discussions were tortuous (refresh your memory with our COP live reporting), there was no discussion on ‘substantive items’. This in person COP10 in Panama promises to be a proper bun fight – and we just wonder whether the allotted week will be sufficient. 

We will be analysing the available documentation and will share our thoughts on those with you in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here are some of our quick observations.

The documents already published show we can expect substantive discussions on these subjects: 

  •  Articles 9 (Regulation of the contents of tobacco products) and 10 (Regulation of tobacco product disclosures).  There are  two reports published so far: here and here.  Non-combustible safer alternatives to smoking will be affected.
  • Discussion specifically on ‘novel and emerging tobacco products’, i.e. the safer alternatives to smoking, such as vapes, nicotine pouches, Heated Tobacco Products and snus. 

As you might have already noticed, whilst the Secretariat has been so generous with some documents there are some key pieces of the puzzle that are still outstanding, including:

  • Reports on Articles 9 and 10 (FCTC/COP/10/7),
  • Reports on novel products (FCTC/COP/10/9 and FCTC/COP/10/10),
  • and the draft decisions attached to those.

These missing pieces will show the direction WHO wants to go for alternatives to smoking. Will WHO be dismissing the science behind alternatives to cigarettes yet again? Keep an eye on COPWATCH for analysis and updates. 

And here’s a reminder – should your organisation wish to apply for Observer status please be aware that the deadline to apply is 22 August:

https://fctc.who.int/who-fctc/governance/observers

Do let us know how you get on. 

Yet another murky WHO meeting

Copwatch has often referred to the opaque nature of the WHO’s Conference of the Parties meetings. It is fully expected that the COP10 meeting in Panama will follow the same path of operating behind closed doors, as best described in this briefing from 2021.

“Also excluded are advocacy NGOs representing people directly affected by tobacco control regimes. This includes smokers and users of safer nicotine products. The involvement of the tobacco industry in the production of some but by no means all safer nicotine products means that advocacy organisations in favour of tobacco harm reduction, including numerous vaping or snus consumer advocacy organisations, are excluded de facto.”

The shadowy and forever hidden activities of the Global Tobacco Regulators Forum (GTRF) have also been documented on these pages. Most recently in April

“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.”

Minutes from the last two FCTC Bureau meetings in November and March have still not surfaced either, as Copwatch has reported before

Now we must add yet another murky WHO meeting to the ever-growing list. 

The UN event management system carries a short notice about an event called the Global Consultation on Novel and Emerging Nicotine and Tobacco Products which is to take place in Geneva between 21 and 23 June. There is no further publicly available information about this meeting. We can assume though that this event is highly likely to be a preparation for COP10 and the work the WHO and the FCTC Secretariat are doing to recommend the full equalisation of all novel products with cigarettes in reports to be presented to the Parties. 

Framed as a consultation, Copwatch expects the result will be dedicated publications, such as these on heated tobacco and vaping products which were issued after a global consultations led by the EURO WHO region before the last COP. 

No-one outside of the WHO FCTC bubble will be allowed to view this latest secret meeting, nor do we expect to see published minutes. 

The WHO website contains a page on transparency, which confidently declares: 

“To build trust, communicators must be transparent about how WHO analyses data and how it makes recommendations and policies.

“Communicators must rapidly and publicly report the participants, processes and conclusions of guideline development meetings.”

Presumably, this is their idea of a joke.

Is the FCTC’s website now a Bloomboard?

Is the FCTC’s website now a Bloomboard?

Yet another day, yet another connection of Bloomberg with the Secretariat of the Framework Convention. Surprisingly, (or maybe at this point we should get rid of any illusions that they do not serve as a lobbying company for Mr. Bloomberg) the official FCTC website provides information about the possibility to apply for Bloomberg-funded grants (Round 33 of the Bloomberg Initiative To Reduce Tobacco Use Grants Program | WHO FCTC).

The announcement board where the information on grants can be found, serves as a newsfeed of “events and initiatives organized by the Convention Secretariat and/or its partners”. Has Bloomberg recently become an official partner of the FCTC? Let’s have a look: Donors and partners (who.int). Nope. Maybe Bloomberg Philanthropies has official COP Observer status? Check it out: Nongovernmental organizations accredited as observers to the COP (who.int). No, still not the case.

We can simply conclude that the website for the international Treaty, legally-binding for its signatories, managed by the FCTC Secretariat, serves as a billboard Bloomboard for privately funded grants. So, instead of spending its time and money, derived from the assessed contributions of the Parties (all sovereign states) the Secretariat is now offering its supporting hand to a wealthy private fund.

Of course, another issue is the added value of such projects. Does anyone expect that their results will in any manner differ from the official line of the Secretariat and friendly organisations? An official line which is decidedly against Tobacco Harm Reduction?

All in all, expectation is the mother of all frustration, so why worry?

Knowledge hub surprise!

The term “multilateral” describes the very essence of international treaties and agreements between countries around the world. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and COP are no exception and, accordingly, all their discussions and decisions should involve all parties – 182 countries, to be more precise.

On July 5th, the FCTC Secretariat surprised COP watchers by announcing the establishment of a Knowledge Hub, in partnership with Santé Publique France, for education, communication, training and public awareness in tobacco control. This raises some questions! Did the Parties request the establishment of this new Knowledge Hub? Was this discussed at COP9, or at previous COP sessions? Does the FCTC Secretariat have the competence to decide unilaterally when a new KH is needed or with whom it is established – particularly when funding will presumably come from the Parties’ contributions to the FCTC? Was this the wish or commitment of a single Party/Country and is that enough justification to create a new KH? Is this multilateralism?

Once again, the answer to all these questions is NO. In the press release, the FCTC Secretariat vaguely explains that the establishment of this Knowledge Hub “concretizes France’s commitment” to fight against tobacco at the international level. 182 Parties to the FCTC have made this same commitment – but will they all get a Knowledge Hub?

The creation of the KH is also shocking in that it demonstrates that the FCTC Secretariat is using COP to act arbitrarily. The announcement does not accord with the decision taken at COP9 to establish a new Knowledge Hub only upon request (page 43). It also disregards the opinion of one Party that the priority should be a new KH on product regulation (page 15).

FCTC Secretariat is using COP as a facade to act arbitrarily and to take unilateral decisions, without seeking the approval of the Parties.

This unilateral and secretive agreement (publicly announced as a Memorandum of Understanding) also poses questions on how the FCTC is being influenced and driven by the wealthiest countries, to the potential disadvantage of the poorer ones.

Finally, to remind you why this is deeply wrong, we invite you to have a look at the FCTC Secretariat competences, which are clearly very limited and do not authorise the Secretariat to sign agreements with national government agencies, such as Santé Publique France.

We expect the FCTC Parties are also surprised and concerned about this sudden announcement, and that they too will continue to question whether the FCTC is a truly multilateral treaty.

Conference of the Parties Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

Intersessional developments – the secrecy continues

We are now in the intersessional period leading up to COP10 and some developments are worth noting. You might recall that elections of the Bureau for COP10 were held during COP9 last year, with Eswatini becoming Chair and Oman, Netherlands, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, and Australia filling the other committee places. The FCTC website reports that this new Bureau met for the first time during the last week of April. What happened there is somewhat of a mystery. What was discussed? What was agreed? Has any information been shared with the Parties? The answer is we just don’t know. This was yet another secret meeting, driven by the FCTC Secretariat and a cherry-picked group of countries.

The next Bureau meeting is scheduled for the autumn – will we have the same uncanny sensation of being left in the dark after that one too?

Conference of the Parties Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Where are the missing verbatim #COP9 reports?

It has been some time since we reported news on #FCTCCOP, but has it been quiet for the FCTC Secretariat?

Silence can mean things are being quietly cooked and indeed, we are back here to report on developments following last year’s secretive COP9. Eventually – almost five months after the meeting – the FCTC Secretariat published the final report of the COP9. The sixty-eight page report reaffirmed the decision taken pre COP that “substantive discussions of and decisions” on some of the agenda items (including articles 9 and 10 and “novel” products) are deferred to COP10, due to be held in Panama in 2023.

However, it is evident there is a lot more in the report than was discussed during the meeting. In particular, FCTC Secretariat has included some suggestions on the regulation of “novel” products – such as the consideration of expanding the definition of “tobacco products” in the Convention to include novel products (page 12) – even though Parties had decided to defer those discussions to COP10.

Last but not least, even the head of the FCTC Secretariat recognised that some discussions literally got lost in translation during COP9 (here). Is this why the verbatim records of the plenary meetings have not been published, as they usually are?

In addition to being shut out from attending the meeting, it seems we are not permitted to know what was said or discussed.

Conference of the Parties Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

FCTC Secretariat uses Australian propaganda to influence COP NGO observers

Following on from our last post highlighting how the WHO has been cherry-picking countries to discuss the future of tobacco control in a secret meeting, we now find the anti-smoking anti-nicotine arm of the WHO cherry-picking information to manipulate the NGO observers to the COP. 

Last week,the FCTC Secretariat sent out the email below emphasising a highly dubious review by the Australian National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH).


Date: Mon, Jun 20, 2022 at 7:15 PM
Subject: Research on e-cigarette use and public health assessment in Australia
To:

Dear NGOs observers to the COP,

The Convention Secretariat and WHO has recently received the visit of Professor Emily Banks, one of Australia’s leading researchers in e-cigarettes and tobacco control. Professor Banks is the Head of the Centre for Public Health Data and Policy, at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH), based at the Australian National University. We would like to share with you information on the last research project she has led in Australia.

 The NCEPH conducted a review of the health outcomes in relation to e-cigarette use and a public health assessment of e-cigarettes for Australia, as commissioned by the Australian Department of Health on 27 February 2019. This global systematic review is the most comprehensive review of vaping-related health impacts to date.

 To date, at least 32 countries ban the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes, 79 countries – including Australia – allow them to be sold while fully or partially regulating them and the remaining 84 countries do not regulate them at all. In Australia, nicotine e-cigarettes are legal only on prescription, for the purpose of smoking cessation.

 In Australia, however, as of 2019, the majority of e-cigarette use is not for smoking cessation, particularly at young ages.

 The systematic review of e-cigarettes and health outcomes (Review) published by NCEPH on 7 April 2022 is one of a series of reports produced as part of this project. The Review concludes that:

  • There is strong or conclusive evidence that nicotine e-cigarettes can be harmful to health and uncertainty regarding their impacts on a range of important health and disease outcomes.
  • The use of nicotine e-cigarettes increases the risk of a range of adverse health outcomes, including: poisoning; toxicity from inhalation (such as seizures); addiction; trauma and burns; lung injury; and smoking uptake, particularly in youth.
  • Nicotine e-cigarettes are highly addictive, underpinning increasing and widespread use among children and adolescents in many settings.
  • The most common pattern of e-cigarette use is dual e-cigarette use and tobacco smoking, which is generally considered an adverse outcome.
  • There is strong evidence that non-smokers who use e-cigarettes are three times as likely to go on to smoke combustible tobacco cigarettes as non-smokers who do not use e-cigarettes, supportive of a “gateway” effect.
  • There is limited evidence of efficacy of freebase nicotine e-cigarettes as an aid to smoking cessation in the clinical setting.

 The summary brief of the review can be found through this link and the full global systematic review is available here. Additional information about the project and resources from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health are available in this website.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Best regards,
Secretariat of the WHO FCTC


The email repeats conclusions of the review without any objective assessment of the evidence behind them. However, Dr Colin Mendelsohn – member of the Australian Smoking Cessation Guideline Expert Advisory Group who has worked in tobacco treatment for 35 years – has cast a more critical eye on the claims and has noted many debatable, or even false, assertions. 

The review claims that there is “conclusive evidence that the use of e-cigarettes can cause respiratory disease (EVALI) among smokers” which is simply not true. Conversely, it declares that there is “limited evidence of efficacy of freebase nicotine e-cigarettes as an aid to smoking cessation” despite the Cochrane living review – the highest quality of scientific evidence – finding that vaping is twice as effective as using NRT for smoking cessation.

The review also carefully picks research suggesting that vaping leads youth to smoking, ignoring real world evidence that the opposite is true. In all states where vaping has been able to compete with combustible products, youth smoking rates have declined considerably since vaping products have been available and are at historically low levels in the UK and USA. Perhaps the FCTC is not aware of what is happening in the world, which would be quite a failing for a global institution, if true. 

One wonders why, if Colin Mendelsohn can find so many flaws in the NCEPH evidence, the FCTC Secretariat is incapable of doing the same. Or, if they have done, why the FCTC Secretariat is enthusiastically emphasising the review without a note of caution. 

Forgive us for being cynical, but we doubt the FCTC Secretariat sends similar emails to highlight research which shows vaping in a positive light. 

To remind you why this is deeply wrong from the Secretariat, please revisit one of our earlier posts – What’s wrong with FCTC COP? The Secretariat should be impartial, but behaviour such as this reveals that it is working to manipulate the Parties according to its own agenda: 

It is therefore irresponsible, and arguably ethically wrong, to foment doubt on vaping amongst NGOs and Observers via an official email, without balancing the clearly biased Australian review with the increasingly weighty body of evidence which points to major public health benefits in countries where vaping is leading to impressive declines in smoking. 

The FCTC treaty preamble defines its purpose as being to “improve the health of a population by eliminating or reducing their consumption of tobacco products and exposure to tobacco smoke”. Smoke, not nicotine. It seems that the Secretariat has forgotten that.