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The FCTC’s myopic and outdated tax-and-ban approach to tobacco policy poses a direct threat to law and order.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.