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Smokers’ lives at risk when they’re denied alternatives to cigarettes




When dogma replaces science in public health policy, people pay with their lives. That was the stark warning from experts who took part in an online discussion hosted by the Italian cultural and political journal Formiche. There are more than a billion cigarette smokers in the world and if they don’t stop, half of them will die as a result. So it’s vitally important to adopt the most effective methods to get them to give up, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

Smoke-free nicotine products, such as vapes are 90% safer than smoking cigarettes and have proved highly effective at helping smokers to give up a habit that is likely to kill them. Nicotine is addictive but it’s the smoke that kills. Yet the only nicotine product the World Health Organisation is not currently trying to ban outright is cigarettes.

That shocking observation was made by Dr Anders Milton, president of Sweden’s Snus Commission. Snus is a tobacco product almost unique to Sweden, which is not lit but simply placed under the lip. It’s played a major part in reducing Swedish cigarette consumption to less than 5% of the population but is banned everywhere else in the European Union.

Sweden secured an opt-out from the ban when it joined the EU, which normally likes to be the world’s leader in setting standards but in tobacco policy prefers to toe the line set by the World Health Organisation. Unfortunately, the WHO’s bureaucrats resort to “nonsensical arguments”, according to Dr Riccardo Polosa, professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Catania and founder of CoEHAR, Research Centre for the Reduction of Smoking Damage.

He said the development of smoke-free products meant that the world now had a solution to the problem of how to eradicate cigarette smoking but what he called “junk science” is blindfolding policymakers. “Silliness”, was how it was described by Professor David Sweanor, president of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics of the University of Ottawa.

Guidelines had been turned into dogma, he argued, with disastrous results. Ill-informed people had met behind closed doors and made rules without any evaluation of their effectiveness. In the process, the WHO had brought itself into disrepute and undermined its wider public health messages. It ignored any criticism and treated those who denied its dogma as heretics.

For Professor Sweanor, they were the sort of people who had brought about prohibition in the United States, a ban on alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s that didn’t succeed in stopping people drinking but did create a massive business opportunity for organised crime. A more recent example was opposition to women having access to contraception, another attempt to impose a moral outlook on the population.


Riccardo Polosa said some countries outside the EU are bucking the trend, with Japan, the United Kingdom, Norway and Iceland seeing smoke-free nicotine products as part of their reduction strategies. So is Sweden, with its opt-out from EU rules that are characterised by what Georgio Rutelli, editor of Formiche, described as the “deafness” in Brussels.

That refusal to listen, even to the people whose lives they are supposedly trying to save, is causing people to lose faith in authorities, said David Sweamer. The World Health Organisation needed up to ask itself how it could become trustworthy. Dogma and secrecy needed to be swept aside.

Banning alternatives to tobacco means looking the other way, favouring a status quo dominated by cigarettes and encouraging illicit trade.

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