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#FCTC: 'Obsessive and paranoid secrecy' at the UN’s #WHO tobacco control meeting




im-a-smoker-and-i-love-e-cigarettesThe World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) has been criticized for its “obsessive and paranoid secrecy” in its refusal to allow representation from tobacco-related companies at its biannual tobacco control meeting currently taking place in New Delhi, writes Martin Banks.

Neither media nor the public will be allowed to attend the WHO meeting in India, which is being held behind closed doors and which concludes on Saturday (12 November). It is the third time that media and public have been asked to leave plenary sessions and side meetings, as the same happened at earlier COP5 and COP6 meetings held in Seoul and Moscow, respectively.

The official reason cited was that some of the public spectators might have ties to the tobacco industry. But independent observers such as economist Roger Bate say the UN outfit “has made clear that journalists, the public, the affected parties — pretty much everyone — is entirely unwelcome”.

Bate, a specialist in international health policy, added: “That is despite the fact that the scheme is funded by taxpayers and the fact that the policy demands coming out of the meeting this week will have global implications.”

Electronic nicotine delivery systems such as e-cigarettes are on the agenda for the meeting in India, although the WHO’s criticism of all vaping alternatives has been dismissed by many specialists in the field. The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is currently the strongest global instrument to control tobacco.

But critics say the framework convention is out of touch with the growing global public demand for reduced-harm alternatives to smoking, notably e-cigarettes. Regulating such electronic nicotine delivery systems is one of the main topics on the agenda, although the WHO’s criticism of all vaping alternatives has been dismissed by many specialists in the field.

The importance of promoting alternatives to smoking is highlighted by latest data on the impact of tobacco. If current patterns continue, tobacco will kill about one billion people during the 21st century. By 2030, 80% of those who die due to tobacco use will be those who live in low- and middle-income countries.


The WHO says tobacco causes more than five million deaths worldwide annually, which is likely to increase to 8.4 million if the situation is not brought under control. But there is a growing body of evidence, along with a growing community of reduced-harm experts, who believe that the WHO risks becoming a danger to public health if it does not embrace reduced harm. This was highlighted by a recent documentary A Billion Lives.

Even though reducing the harm of smoking was a core objective of the FCTC back in 2003 when the founding document was adopted, the organisation is now accused of refusing to accept and embrace this solution.  Instead, the head of the WHO Margaret Chan has called for e-cigarettes to be banned and the FCTC itself has excluded representatives of the vaping community from observing the meeting in Delhi.

This comes despite a leading manufacturer saying that e-cigarettes should be promoted as an alternative to traditional smoking rather than attacked. Fontem, a Netherlands-based subsidiary of the big four cigarette maker Imperial Tobacco, hit out at the WHO for pushing an "anti-vaping agenda" and "ignoring the scientific consensus" that e-cigarettes could be a tool in the fight against tobacco use ahead of World No Tobacco Day Electronic cigarettes, which contain nicotine but not tobacco, were found last year to be 95% safer than cigarettes.

A recent landmark study from doctors' body the Royal College of Physicians concluded that vaping should be widely encouraged as an alternative to smoking, and found that the use of e-cigarettes was more likely to lead to successfully quitting tobacco smoking than would otherwise have occurred.  Julian Morris, of Reason Foundation, said that, ironically, FCTC schemes are likely to fuel increased tobacco use.

As well as “waging a secretive global jihad on tobacco and smokers” the WHO is also simultaneously working to limit access to new technologies such as so-called electronic cigarettes that have reportedly helped millions of people quit using tobacco, he said.

The WHO bureaucracy also released a report last month that demands heavy-handed government regulation and control over such technologies — even though evidence indicates that “vaping” with e-cigs is far, far safer than tobacco use.

“The WHO meddling is a threat to humanity and health,” according to Morris. “The WHO’s opposition to tobacco harm-reduction is dishonest and threatens public health,” Morris added, saying that the WHO FTCT violates all the precepts of good governance, especially as it relates to transparency.  “Moreover, there is essentially no participation by representatives of many affected groups, including users of tobacco and vape products, vendors, and farmers.”  He added that the UN's bureaucracy must, at a minimum, open itself and its secretive meetings up to journalists. Even better would be to live-stream the proceedings.

Other experts and critics also blasted the WHO's FTCT agenda and secrecy. Former Australian Labour Minister Gary Johns, for example, a member of the Australian Prime Minister's Community Business Partnership and a director of the Australian Institute for Progress, suggested that the secrecy and the exclusion of so many important players — not to mention the public and the media — was a big part of what allows the absurdity to flourish at the global bureaucracy.

“These meetings should be held in a transparent fashion and in public view,” he said. “The FCTC Secretariat does not have the expertise or resources to deal with two big challenges of the Convention: finding a path for reduced harm alternatives to smoking, and tackling illicit trade in tobacco.”

Alex Newman, a foreign correspondent for The New American, said: “The best and easiest solution, though, would be for governments to withdraw from the WHO and the entire UN. There is absolutely no legitimate reason why the dictators' club that is the UN should have any influence.”

The seventh session of the Conference of Parties (COP7), which started on 7 November, brings together almost 180 countries participating as delegates as well as other organizations. Over the course of two weeks, delegates and leaders from different countries will meet and discuss the changes, economic and political, that they would like to see in the anti-tobacco movement.

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