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WHO seconds AHA’s tentative nod to vapes

There was further seismic activity Tuesday (26 August), and not in northern California, but in the world of vaping. A new declaration by the World Health Organization (WHO) echoed the directional reversal of the American Heart Association (AHA) the day before.

The document states that: " the individual level, experts suggest that in some smokers who have failed treatment, have been intolerant to it, or who refuse to use conventional smoking cessation medication, the use of appropriately regulated ENDS (Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems) may have a role to play in supporting attempts to quit."

On the surface the change seems modest, since the document, like the AHA release on Monday, reiterates all the familiar caveats about gateway effects and "renormalization" of smoking behavior, and calls for strict regulation. But when a body as large as the WHO, and as central to this issue, reverses its direction, it is clear that the very earth under our feet is moving. Until this time, the WHO has talked of banning e-cigarettes, but this document consistently speaks not of a ban but of regulation.

The declaration still demands strict product certification standards, and this will certainly present a burden to the smaller, independent vaping products suppliers, as many have feared, and could stack the deck in favor of Big Tobacco in the marketing wars.

But on this front the bright spot is the clear recognition by this document of the distinction between Big Tobacco and the independents, of the fact that the market was launched by the independents, of Big Tobacco's late entry into the market, and most important, of the significant difference in marketing motivation between these two segments of the market. Independent e-cig firms aim to replace "the smoking epidemic" while Big Tobacco aims to prolong it, while profiting from its antidote both financially and reputationally.

To this date, many significant regulatory voices opposing e-cigs have seen Big Tobacco as the spokesman for the industry, treating it as a monolithic market force initiated and led by cigarette manufacturers, and have viewed vaping as a ruse devised by Big Tobacco, ignoring its initial opposition and late entry.

But now, from the WHO no less, we have this: "The ENDS market, initially dominated by companies with no links to the tobacco industry, is increasingly owned by the tobacco industry. All main transnational tobacco companies sell ENDS and one of them is launching legal proceedings over patents against its rivals as they become increasingly aggressive in the battle for the fast-growing e-cigarette market. The increasing concentration of the ENDS market in the hands of the transnational tobacco companies is of grave concern in light of the history of the corporations that dominate that industry.... [T]heir interest lies in maintaining the status quo in favour of cigarettes for as long as possible, while simultaneously providing a longer-term source of profit should the cigarette model prove unsustainable. In addition, selling these products is intended to bring reputational benefits to these companies, as they can pretend to be part of the solution to the smoking epidemic."

This is a very strong statement of what the vaping community has seen for some time now, that Big Tobacco has aims quite different from those of the vaping community and the independent industry, quite opposed to them, in fact. Given this stance on the part of the WHO, it is now possible to imagine a regulatory framework that will make a distinction between ENDS marketed by independents and those marketed by cigarette manufacturers. Conceivably, measures could be devised that would ease the certification burden for independents.

The WHO is planning a summit conference for its "Framework Convention on Tobacco Control" (FCTC) in Moscow in just two months (October 2014). The FCTC is a non-binding statement of support for international tobacco control, signed my most WHO member nations (but significantly, not by the USA). The document published yesterday is scheduled as "Provisional agenda item 4.4.2".

Watch this space.