‘Nonsensical and dangerous’: Industry lambasts WHO calls for tight regulation of e-cigarettes

A man uses a vape as he walks on Broadway in New York City, U.S., September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Vaping industry and public health experts in the UK have strongly condemned the World Health Organisation’s latest report on vaping, which said electronic cigarettes and similar devices should be tightly regulated for maximum public health protection.

The WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic 2021, which focused on new and emerging products, was published on Tuesday.

“Nicotine is highly addictive. Electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) are harmful, and must be better regulated,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Where they are not banned, governments should adopt appropriate policies to protect their populations from the harms of ENDS, and to prevent their uptake by children, adolescents and other vulnerable groups.”

The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) said the WHO’s Organisation’s latest ‘attack’ on vaping “flies in the face of scientific evidence, common sense and harm reduction.”

“The fundamental difference between the UK and the WHO is that the UK has taken a science and evidence-led approach towards vaping. And the evidence clearly shows the enormous role vaping products play in helping smokers to quit and stay quit,” said John Dunne, director general of the UKVIA.

“The WHO, on the other hand, has chosen to do the prohibition route, effectively calling for a ‘ban on everything’ except combustible tobacco products – does that sound like an organisation trying to reduce smoking?”

He added: “We know we are on the right side of the argument, prioritising as we do, health protection and harm reduction. The WHO, however, seems hell-bent on preventing smokers’ access to the one quit method proven to not only help smokers quit cigarettes, but to do so long term.”

The UN health agency’s eighth tobacco report said ENDS manufacturers often target youths with thousands of tantalising flavours – the document listed 16,000 – and reassuring statements.

Dr Vinayak Prasad, who heads the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said targeting children “with toxic and poisonous products is a criminal action”.

“It’s the most criminal act. And it’s a human rights violation,” he told a press conference. “They run the risk of being addicted for the rest of their lives.”

The WHO recommends that governments do whatever they can to prevent non-smokers from taking up e-cigarettes, for fear of “renormalising smoking in society”.

However, Dr Derek Yach, president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, said the WHO’s comments were “fundamentally flawed”.

“The exceptional growth of next generation devices offers the WHO a real opportunity to tackle combustible consumption once and for all,” he said.

“Over 100 million ex-smokers use reduced-risk products and the WHO should be taking advantage of massive investment in the sector by encouraging governments to provide an incentivised regulatory framework to enable greater expansion.”

Professor John Britton, Professor of Epidemiology at University of Nottingham is also highly critical of the WHO report, saying that it demonstrates that the agency “still doesn’t understand the fundamental difference between addiction to tobacco smoking, which kills millions of people every year, and addiction to nicotine, which doesn’t.”

“The WHO is also evidently still content with the hypocrisy of adopting a position which recommends the use of medicinal nicotine products to treat addiction to smoking, but advocates prohibition of consumer nicotine products which do the same thing, but better,” he added.

Ruediger Krech, director of the WHO’s health promotion department, asserted that while the evidence on e-cigarettes was not yet fully conclusive, there was enough evidence to conclude that they were harmful.

“Let us not be naive in thinking that the tobacco industry would be part of the solution right now: they are still a big part of the problem,” he added.

However, regulating such products is not easy as the product range is very diverse and rapidly evolving, said Krech said.

“Distinguishing the nicotine-containing products from the non-nicotine, or even from some tobacco-containing products, can be almost impossible. This is just one way the industry subverts and undermines tobacco control measures,” he said.

The report found that 32 countries have banned the sale of ENDS. A further 79 have adopted at least one partial measure to either prohibit the use of such products in public places, prohibit their advertising, promotion and sponsorship or require the display of health warnings on packaging.

Prasad said the tobacco industry was “misleading the public and trying to mislead the governments”.

David Jones MP, who sits on the All Party Parliamentary Group for Smoking and Health, however, noted that the WHO’s opposition to all smoking alternatives, not just vaping, was “bizarre”.

“Our advice remains that people who smoke are better to switch completely to vaping,” he said. “That opinion, however, is not shared by the WHO, which has long pursued an almost pathological campaign against e-cigarettes.”

He continued: “The UK government’s health promotion body, Public Health England (PHE), says that: ‘Vaping is not risk free but is far less harmful than smoking.

“Using reduced-risk products such as vapes or heat-not-burn devices is demonstrably safer than smoking cigarettes. There are no serious debates to be had here. PHE is very clear about it: such products are around 95 percent safer than combustible tobacco.”

He added: “The WHO is simply wrong. The UK should reject its calls and continue to develop its own science-based guidelines, helping people quit the habit that claims so many lives.”

The Geneva-based organisation said efforts to regulate e-cigarettes should not distract from the fight against smoking.

The report said there were still more than a billion smokers around the world. Tobacco is responsible for the deaths of eight million people a year, including one million from second-hand smoke, it stressed.

Though the proportion of smokers has fallen in many countries, population growth means that the total number of smokers remains “stubbornly high,” the WHO said.