Last month, media cycles were dominated by COP26, the UN’s global climate summit held in Glasgow. But behind the scenes, another wing of the United Nations was also meeting to decide the future of a crucial area of public policy: the World Health Organization (WHO).
COP9, hosted by the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), took place virtually. Attendees discussed public health policy, with a particular focus on smoking and vaping. But where COP26 was broadcast around the world, featured eye-catching speeches from world leaders and generated countless headlines, COP9 was hidden away behind closed doors. It passed without a whisper.
As a result, its outcomes faced little to no scrutiny. That’s a cause for concern, not least because at COP9, the WHO adopted a framework for tobacco control proposed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the same country with whom the US government is currently locked in talks over possible weapons of mass destruction. The FCTC states proudly that the Iranian declaration, signed off at COP9, “stresses the need to protect public health policy from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry.”
This fits a well-established pattern in the WHO’s approach to this type of issue. It likes to over-simplify complex policy issues by casting itself in the lead role in a damsel-in-distress fairy tale where it swoops in to save consumers like you and I from the malevolent intentions of the villain — usually private companies but sometimes a sovereign, democratically elected national government.
In the case of tobacco policy, the WHO insists that its approach, as proposed by Iran at COP9, is vital and constructive. The declaration goes on to state that “tobacco control measures, particularly increases in tobacco taxes, should be an integral part in [sic] pandemic recovery efforts.”
The question of how exactly increased tobacco taxes will help us recover from Covid-19 remains unaddressed, but the problem runs much deeper. The WHO is a fully signed-up supporter of the outdated, disproven twentieth-century playbook which says any social or political ill can be eliminated through taxes and bans. It’s nanny statism gone global.
The reality is very different. The FCTC likes to quote alarming figures about how deadly smoking is, but it never explains how its proposed policy solutions — which are always wildly intrusive on our civil liberties and our wallets — will save any lives. Prohibition simply doesn’t work. Just like liquor prohibition in the 1920s and 30s, the WHO’s war on nicotine provides an object lesson in the law of unintended consequences
Research from Pepperdine University found that prohibition leads to a loss of consumer protection and a rise in illicit trade and other criminal activity. If you ban smoking — which, according to the FCTC, is ultimately the only logical conclusion — tobacco addicts will be forced to switch to the black market.
That means the products they buy are unregulated, putting them in grave danger. Criminal and drug gangs enjoy a new income stream. Plus, governments around the world miss out on an estimated $40-50 billion in lost tax revenue each year. That money could be invested in essential services — or given back to the public through tax cuts.
Even policies less radical than outright bans have adverse consequences. Price increases driven by taxation result in less affordable cigarettes, which has a notable effect on the size of the illicit market. If cigarettes become 10% more expensive relative to incomes, illegal trade grows by 7% on average as consumers seek cheaper options.
Perhaps most damagingly of all, the Iranian framework adopted by the FCTC also advocates new taxes and restrictions on vaping. Electronic cigarettes are unequivocally much safer than smoking, and they are a vital quitting aid. They work in 74% of cases — a much higher success rate than every other smoking cessation method. The WHO’s rigid stance on reduced risk products like vaping means poorer smokers are more likely to struggle with quitting or to turn to smoking for relief from stress or depression.
In its COP9 echo chamber, free of anyone contradicting the nanny-state orthodoxy, the FCTC adopted a destructive and dangerous framework on tobacco policy. In future, it should refrain from taking public health directives from Iran.