National Post (Canada): The WHO’s tobacco policy echo chamber

This article was first published in the National Post (via Financial Post) one of Canada’s biggest newspapers.

This month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) held two virtual meetings relating to its mission to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products, called Conference of the Parties (COP9) —yes, another COP! — and Meeting of the Parties (MOP2). But those titles are misleading: key stakeholders were shut out of the conversation.

As is now typical of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), key parties were excluded from these vital conversations. The media was shut out, as was law enforcement. Countless organizations and individuals with potential insight into the issue, such as scientists, were excluded because of alleged distant connections to tobacco interests. Perhaps most importantly of all, consumers had no voice at either COP9 or MOP2.

Instead, those conferences saw public health bureaucrats and governments officials meet for talks behind closed doors to concoct plans for the continuing growth of the nanny state in the form of endless new restrictions on tobacco products. A cabal of statists gathered in a room to agree with each other about the need to impose their will on the non-consenting public. It was an autocratic echo chamber.

This is clearly dangerous. By allowing elites to set the rules free of scrutiny, officials can produce oppressive, harmful international laws which might otherwise have been impossible. When a group of tobacco farmers peacefully protested against COP7, held in Delhi in 2016, they were rounded up onto buses and carted away out of sight and earshot of the conference. The FCTC is wilfully blind to the real-world consequences of its diktats.

The result is an elite consensus behind actively destructive public health policies. By cracking down on tobacco through new taxes, sales restrictions and advertising regulations, the WHO risks fuelling the illicit market. According to US research , the illegal tobacco trade funds organized crime gangs and terrorism and contributes to underage smoking, all the while costing governments billions in lost global tax revenue.

The FCTC’s myopic and outdated tax-and-ban approach to tobacco policy poses a direct threat to law and order. Combatting illicit trade is an area in which governments’ and the tobacco industry’s shared interests make cooperation necessary and sensible. Tobacco product packaging and associated tracking mechanisms play a key role in preventing illicit trade. Some aspects of law enforcement to combat illicit trade require implementation by tobacco interests.

Yet the WHO refuses to consult the likes of Interpol, the world’s foremost anti-crime organization, on the grounds that it sometimes works with the tobacco industry to track shipments. The WHO has twice denied Interpol credentials to participate in FCTC discussions.

The FCTC, then, leaves smokers with a stark choice: quit, or resort to organized crime, the dark underbelly of the western world. And as if that weren’t bad enough, the WHO also goes out of its way to cut off smokers’ best hope of an escape route by cracking down on reduced-risk products such as electronic cigarettes.

E-cigarettes, or vapes, are the best tools ever discovered for helping smokers quit cigarettes. They succeed in nearly three quarters of cases, a much higher success rate than nicotine pouches, going cold turkey or any other method of smoking cessation. But the FCTC plays into misinformation and scaremongering by urging equally harsh new nanny-statist measures against vaping.

The WHO’s approach to tobacco policy suffers from multiple fatal flaws because it is the product of the closed-door, unscrutinised conversations between public health bureaucrats with no expertise in the economics of the tobacco industry, no interest in the livelihood of tobacco farmers and no concern whatsoever for the freedom of choice of tobacco consumers.

Echo chambers breed harmful policies and the FCTC is a case in point. Its next meeting — COP10 — is due to be held in late 2023. Between now and then, the WHO would do well to allow differing perspectives and external insight into the fold. The alternative path is a bleak one.

National Post (Canada): Learn from Britain — a junk food ad ban is a bad idea

This article was first published in the National Post (via Financial Post) one of Canada’s biggest newspapers.

This article was co-written with David Clement, North American affairs manager at the Consumer Choice Center.

Childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled in the last 30 years. Almost one in three Canadian children is overweight or obese, according to data from Statistics Canada. In an effort to tackle this growing problem, Health Canada has announced it is considering sweeping new legislation to restrict junk food advertising.

A similar plan was mooted but not adopted a few years back, but public health regulators now feel empowered to push this tired idea partly because the British government recently signed off on a new law banning television advertisements before nine in the evening for foods high in sugar. Health Canada says it is examining the British law and recommitting to implementing something similar in Canada.

The months the British government has spent dancing around this issue ought to be enough to ward off any right-thinking Canadian. The law it eventually came up with was a watered-down version of the original proposal, which would have banned all online advertising of anything the government considered “junk food.” Bakeries could have been committing a crime by posting pictures of cakes to Instagram.

The U.K. government now promises its new legislation will eliminate that possibility. But that doesn’t mean the ban is a useful public policy tool. First and foremost, ad bans simply do not work. The British government’s own analysis of its policy predicts it will remove a grand total of 1.7 calories from kids’ diets per day. That’s roughly the equivalent of 1/30th of an Oreo cookie.

It’s safe to assume the same policy would have similarly underwhelming results here in Canada. It won’t help reduce child obesity but it will make life more complicated for the country’s food industry. All this, just as the world enters a post-COVID economic recovery and countries like Britain and Canada need growth and investment more than ever.

The junk food ad ban was pushed through in the U.K. on the back of a sinister campaign weaponizing children’s voices. As the government wrapped up its public consultation on the proposal, it lauded a conveniently timed report supposedly highlighting the crying need for such a drastic policy intervention. The report — or “exposé,”’ as it was branded — was cooked up by Biteback 2030, a pressure group fronted by celebrity chefs and Dolce & Gabbana models. Absent hard evidence or coherent arguments for the centralization of decision-making on a matter as fundamental as what to have for dinner, it made its point by shamelessly putting interventionist politics into children’s mouths.

“I’m a 16-year-old boy,” read its introduction. “I feel like I’m being bombarded with junk food ads on my phone and on my computer. And I’m pretty sure this is getting worse.” Canadians who value free markets and individual liberties should be on the lookout for similar tactics from nanny-statists bent on drowning entire industries in red tape and consigning any notion of freedom of choice to the history books. It is incredibly paternalistic for the government to limit what advertisements adult consumers can see, as the ban would eliminate the targeted ads from all TV programming before nine p.m.

There is plenty Canada can do to fight obesity without resorting to blanket advertising bans, following the outdated playbook of trying to tax and ban things out of existence in a misguided effort to change people’s behaviour. The ban completely ignores the other half of the obesity equation, which is of course physical activity.

Obesity is a serious problem. It could even become the next pandemic. But as this junk food ad ban statement from Health Canada shows, powerful public health regulators are asleep at the wheel. They claim to be acting in Canadians’ best interest but they have nothing new to add to the policy debate.