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Press coverage of WHO document flawed

Press coverage of yesterday's WHO declaration on electronic cigarettes has been marked by considerable misunderstanding of its import. Most headlines have screamed about stronger regulation [stronger than what? not stronger than a ban!] and the recommended public use ban, ignoring the more significant shift toward regulation and acceptance as a last-resort treatment, rather than prohibition, toward which earlier WHO documents had been leaning. In 2013, the organization had stated flatly: "...consumers should be strongly advised not to use ... electronic cigarettes." The policy reversal is the meat of the new document, but no one seems to have noticed.

One headline even misquotes the WHO quotation it presents in the body of the article. "Passive E-cig emissions 'as toxic as normal cigarettes' " heralds the site, only to explain in the body of the article, with a quote from the document itself: "...some ENDS... produce toxicant levels in the range of that produced by some cigarettes." Not the same thing as "as toxic", and the WHO document even admits that the toxicity of e-cig vapor is normally much lower than secondhand smoke from combustible cigarettes. Misquotes like this one constitute part of the background of public misunderstanding of the whole vaping phenomenon.

The World Health Organization is a United Nations organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, and although it is highly esteemed in the disease prevention community, its recommendations are not binding. Even its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is a statement of the good intentions of its signatories, and is not binding on them.

For instance, England's Department of Health has already declared its intention not to impose the indoor-use ban recommended by the WHO, reports The Guardian. "More and more people are using e-cigarettes and we want to make sure they are properly regulated so we can be sure of their safety and quality," said a Department of Health spokesperson.

Ministers in Wales are planning a public consultation to consider possible implementation of a ban on public use, as per the WHO recommendations. This would be the UK's first ban on public use of electronic cigarettes, by contrast with municipalities across the pond in the USA, where a number of localities have already banned public use, in advance of the WHO recommendation.

Some nicotine scientists in the "harm reduction" camp have expressed dismay concerning the new WHO document. Greek/Belgian cardiologist Konstantinos Farsalinos voiced distress at the proposed ban on e-cig flavors. "A major problem with this statement is the proposal to ban flavours," says Farsalinos. "They apply the precautionary principle in an exaggerated way, and fail to acknowledge evidence showing that flavors are a necessary part of the vaping experience.

Another critic from the medical community is David Abrams, executive director of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies in Washington, DC. “We're disappointed," says Dr. Abrams, as quoted in The New York Times.  "They are overregulating by equating e-cigarettes with regular cigarettes. We have to find a balance between protecting youth and helping smokers quit. This document doesn’t do that.”

Both Farsalinos and Abrams were among the group of 53 scientists worldwide who signed an open letter to the WHO several months ago, urging "light regulation" of electronic cigarettes.