Africa: COP10 - Debate on Novel tobacco and Nicotine Products; It is High time to Listen to Each Other

8 February 2024

Delegates from around the world are gathering in Panama City since Feb 5th for the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

At COP10, delegates from 183 countries discuss various points including implementation of FCTC Articles 9 and 10 (regulation of contents and disclosure of tobacco products), tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship among others and one the most controversial subject in the current debate, the novel and emerging tobacco products.

In her opening address, Head of the FCTC Secretariat Adriana Blanco Marquizo outlined three key concerns for the meeting: FCTC’s slow implementation, new nicotine and tobacco products gaining popularity and the industry’s continuous interference in countries’ tobacco control efforts.

She warned about the increasing availability of novel and emerging nicotine and tobacco products. “Part of this increase is due to disingenuous tobacco industry messages portraying these products as a replacement for real tobacco control measures as the industry again tries to claim a seat at the table—as part of the solution to an epidemic that the industry created and continues to sustain ”, she said.

Industry and tobacco harm reduction advocates claim that e-cigarettes, vapes, or heat-not-burn products are a less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes. But the WHO contests this and argues that alternatives are equally addictive, and that the tobacco industry provides misleading information about them.

Accusations are flying from all sides. Harm reductionists on the other hand, denounce the opacity of the FCTC arguing that not only tobacco industry is kept aside, but also other relevant stakeholders as organized civil society, producers, doctors, scientists, consumers…

Who doesn’t listen to who?

Tomás Sánchez, president of the Panamanian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association said in a statement “In recent years it has become increasingly clear that at COP there is no room for dissent or debate based on scientific evidence or the reality of each country. Only those who abide by or share the line dictated by the COP have space. But in order not to appear sectarian, which borders on authoritarianism, they have established a preselection process where they themselves define and decide who participates in the COP sessions.”

Head of the FCTC Secretariat in her address asked everyone, to be alert to what she depicted as “the relentless interference of the tobacco industry in every corner of the world.” However, it is a subject that does not concern the tobacco industry only, but many other layers of civil society.

In its press release published on February 7th, Taxpayers Protection Alliance-TPA, a non-profit organization dedicated to public education on the government's economic impact, questions:

“Is the WHO listening to consumers trying to gain access to life-saving tobacco harm reduction (THR) products?  Is the WHO listening to scientists who have shown that THR products are 95 percent less harmful?  Is the WHO listening to taxpayer advocates who want an accounting of the taxpayer money spent?  Is the WHO listening to good government groups advocating for open and transparent meetings? Or is the WHO listening to Michael Bloomberg and his phony philanthropic cronies?”

Part of the media community also feels pushed aside. Hitler Cigarruista, Panamanian journalist, Editor in Chief Capital Financiero comments “The press plays a crucial role in monitoring and disseminating information that impacts the lives of citizens. Restricting media access to such important events not only undermines the democratic principle of press freedom, but also raises questions about the willingness of the parties involved to be transparent and open to public scrutiny.”

In the new guidelines to be adopted, FCTC wants to encourage parties to the convention to enact extreme bans on communications related to alternative tobacco and nicotine products. In other terms, the guidelines would criminalize Tobacco Harm Reduction activism supported by a free press which has played a central role in providing access to information about better alternatives and scientific advances on a public health matter.  Consistent in the belief that it would jeopardize the efforts against smoking, the WHO FCTC would rather ban all forms of communication and access to information about the science behind novel products.

Science is Science

For the WHO, scientific evidence that prove that the novel products are less harmful is not sufficient while it has been proven that the level of some harmful chemicals in the aerosols produced by alternative tobacco products is lower than in cigarette smoke.

Although there is no such thing as “tobacco industry science versus science”, the WHO dismisses available scientific evidence probably because most of the studies have been done by tobacco companies. Dr. Clive Bates, Former Director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK) in a recent statement declared that simply dismissing evidence is unscientific. He went on stating that the WHO and tobacco control activists have been instrumental in denying millions of smokers access to lifesaving, low-risk alternatives to cigarettes through prohibition, regulation, and misinformation for which there is no scientific or ethical basis.

Ultimately, it is the consumers that are kept in the dark about novel products because of the contradictory information they receive from all sides. They would expect the WHO to take tobacco harm reduction more seriously, take a closer look at the facts-based evidence and participate to the Research in order to cross-check the veracity of the results and give them more credibility that will eventually build trust among all stakeholders for the benefit of consumers’ health.

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