The World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC COP) is coming up next week, after having been cancelled last year. The meeting will assess the progress of WHO states in their reduction of smoking rates and continue its recommendations to curb the use of tobacco products.
Curiously, in the conversations over the last few years, FCTC has been keen to include non-tobacco products in its considerations. The WHO's crusade against vaping products remains a public health mystery, not least because studies have underlined how e-cigarettes represent a reliable smoking cessation tool.
The international health body's claim that e-cigarettes are harmful to human health is distorting the harm reducing reality of vaping, and stands against Public Health England's findings that it is 95% safer than smoking conventional cigarettes, a number which it has been happy to reiterate.
UK public health officials have firmly pushed back against the WHO, accusing it of "spreading misinformation". The fact that the WHO remains undeterred in its opposition to e-cigarettes is a reason for concern because the body appears to channel a political sticking to its guns than a scientific reevaluation of its earlier statements.
The UK's public policy response to vaping has been a more productive one, as numbers have shown. According to England's 2021 vaping evidence update: "In 2020, 27.2% of people used a vaping product in a quit attempt in the previous 12 months. This compares with 15.5% who used NRT over the counter or on prescription (2.7%), and 4.4% who used varenicline."
In 2017, 50,000 smokers quit their habit through vaping. Overall, the government recognises the effectiveness of vaping as superior to any other smoking cessation tools. This is also backed up by 50+ studies in a review done by the Cochrane policy institute.
The European Union's response to e-cigarettes has unfortunately followed WHO doctrine, which sets out to regulate and restrict vaping to such an extent that it becomes uninteresting to users to continue. So far, the real risk that this means that many vapers could switch back to smoking regular cigarettes has yet to reach the conscience of EU lawmakers.
Instead of following its current line, the European Union should follow the lead of the United Kingdom and its successful experiment with vaping. The FCTC COP meeting in Geneva next month is an excellent occasion to do exactly that, especially now that 100 public health specialists have signed an open letter calling for an FCTC policy reversal on vaping.
To be clear, vaping is not a one-size-fits-all solution to smoking as a public health issue, but to many current smokers, it is an adequate substitute that is safer and, in the long run, can lead to stopping tobacco use altogether.
Visitors of vape shops can confirm: most vape shops offer the different flavours in 0% nicotine options as well, and one will be hard-pressed to find vape shop owners who push customers to increase their nicotine consumption levels. Quite the contrary, vape show retailers have paved the way for many users to quit cigarettes and are thus part of the solution as much as the devices themselves.
Harm reduction is not new. Many European countries already apply it in drug policy, alcohol policy or in safer sex programmes. It is true that for decades, smoking cessation tools have been on the market, including products such as nicotine patches. That said, we've seen that there's only so much you can do with these tools, which is exactly why policy-makers should embrace vaping as the tobacco harm reduction tool of the future.
By Bill Wirtz, The Consumer Choice Center