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WHO did what?!

The World Health Organisation (WHO) will continue to advocate the treatment of electronic cigarettes in the same way as combustible cigarettes, according to documents leaked to The Financial Times. "Parts of the WHO are keen to classify the battery-powered devices as tobacco," the FT reported today.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is a WHO treaty on reduction of smoking worldwide. If the organisation does indeed make such a position on e-cigs a part of the Framework Convention, this will be a disappointment to harm reduction advocates, who had hoped for policies that would facilitate use of the life-saving devices as an alternative to lethal cigarettes.

The leaked documents appear to have been the minutes of a meeting held this week with the purpose of setting the agenda for a WHO meeting to be held in Moscow next November. “We are in the middle of a process right now," said a spokesperson. "The WHO position is not yet finalised.” Hopes had been raised by a note on the Facebook page of leading nicotine scientist and harm reduction supporter Konstantinos Farsalinos, reporting a visit to Geneva, Switzerland, the location of the WHO administrative offices, this week, allegedly for some "very important meetings for e-cigarettes".

If Dr. Farsalinos was indeed present at a meeting of WHO officials, they apparently elected not to heed his informed scientific opinion.

It appears that proposed strictures will only apply to nicotine extracted from tobacco leaves, leaving some "wiggle room" for e-cigarette manufacturers. WHO secretariat head Haik Nikogosian said that e-cigarettes “could result in a new wave of the tobacco epidemic.” The fear is that e-cigarette use will "re-normalize smoking".

Allegedly there are also worries about variable nicotine concentrations, and so these worries become a justification for restricting access to a product many feel is saving their lives. Euromonitor's Shane Macguill, a tobacco analyst, says “It would be damaging to the industry’s capacity to bring in new consumers.” Sanjiv Desai of VMR Products, maker of V2 e-cigs, adds “We can’t discount the public perception and the weight that any decision that they make would have on electronic cigarettes.” And Phil Daman of the Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association, an industry group, says that restrictions of this sort may stifle innovation.

When people see the benefit of having an alternative to tobacco consumption both from an economic perspective and a public health perspective, the value of having this alternative outweighs the fear.

The US is one of the few nations worldwide that has not signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, leaving some doubts about projected US restrictions. The pronouncements of the US regulatory body, the Food and Drug Administration, remain to be announced.