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Scientists give WHO what for

A group of prominent scientists has penned an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), urging the organization that supposedly watches out for the health of the planet's inhabitants to resist "the urge to treat as tobacco products." The letter was signed by 53 scientists, more than half of them from the European Union, with significant numbers of signatories from North America, from down under, and from a few other countries, and was sent to the WHO in honor of the approaching "World No Tobacco Day" coming up in a few days, on Saturday, 31 May.

The appeal is occasioned, not only by the approaching "no tobacco day" but also by a leaked WHO document calling e-cigarettes a threat to public health, and declaring the intent to sideline them in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC has already declared "snus" such a threat, the scientists note, despite their proven success in saving lives in Sweden, where they are permitted as an exception. A WHO meeting on the FCTC is scheduled for Moscow in October 2014. Further information about the appeal is available on the Nicotine Science and Policy website.

There are few, if any, surprises in the text of the letter; it is the same message harm reductionists have been presenting to hard line prohibitionists for the better part of a decade now. For example: "the 1.3 billion people who currently smoke could do much less harm to their health if they consumed nicotine in low-risk, non-combustible form." Citing "rapid developments" in low risk substitutes for combustible cigarettes, the scientists suggest that such products "could play a significant role in meeting the 2025 UN non-communicable disease objectives."

World No Tobacco Day takes place on the last day of May every year, and each year the WHO designates a theme or special tobacco related-policy request for the worldwide event. This year the organization has suggested increased tax hikes for tobacco products as the special objective of the worldwide festivities. In line with this objective, the scientists have noted that vaping products containing no tobacco should not be included in such hikes, since "excessive taxation of low risk products relative to combustible tobacco deters smokers from switching and will cause more smoking and harm than there otherwise would be."

"If regulators treat low-risk nicotine products as traditional tobacco products... they are improperly defining them as part of the problem," say the health experts, while in fact "tobacco harm reduction is part of the solution." Recognizing the "health opportunities" posed by low-risk alternatives, the scientists say that it would be "unethical and harmful to inhibit the option to switch to tobacco harm reduction products" (such as vaping products and snus, which they also include), as this would have "the perverse effect of prolonging cigarette consumption." It would be counterproductive to ban e-cigarette advertising, or to tax e-cigarettes at the same rate as conventional tobacco products, which would deter switching and "cause more smoking and harm." Advertising can be targeted toward smokers and kept away from non-smokers and children, the scientists opine, but they say that a total ban on e-cig advertising actually protects the cigarette industry and provides "implicit support for tobacco companies."

Regarding the infamous "gateway effect, in which use of low-risk products would, it is claimed, lead to use of high-risk smoked products," the scientists simply say that they "are unaware of any credible evidence that supports this conjecture."

Calling the potential of harm-reduction products one of "the most significant health innovations of the 21st century," the scientists call for WHO policies that would "realise the potential" these products have for saving lives, instead of curtailing them.

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