Over twenty organisations representing the voices of vapers around the world and expert harm reduction advocates have added their signatures to a letter addressed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. They wrote to point out that vaping is integral in the fight against smoking related diseases and constitutes a ‘Right to Health’ for global citizens.
Individual nicotine and vape consumer organisation from Peru, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Mexico, Brazil, Panama, Canada, Thailand, India, the UK, Ireland, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany signed up alongside several international consumer groups and experts to remind the United Nations High Commissioner that “smoking is the single most preventable cause of illness and death.”
They highlighted: “According to the WHO, smoking kills more than 8 million people each year, including 1.3 non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke, and it is a major risk factor for non-communicable disease.”
The signatories have addressed the matter to the High Commissioner because his role is to protect the right to health as laid out in multiple UN treaties and documents, the Constitution of the World Health Organisation and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
Why send the letter now?
Countries (called the Parties) that have signed up to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control will be meeting at a conference in Panama at the end of November, called the Conference of Parties or COP – being the tenth Conference of Parties, this year’s meeting is frequently referred to as COP10.
In total, 1500 delegates will represent the 182 countries will discuss measures to combat tobacco harm. The problem is that despite having access to reduced harm products (such as vapes) enshrined in the Convention, the World Health Organisation is seeking to force all Parties to treat vaping in the same way it legislates against smoking.
Can anybody else attend COP10?
In theory, yes. Spectators and journalists are allowed to apply to witness the proceedings and the World Health Organisation says it streams debates to be viewed online.
In practice, all consumers, consumer groups and any journalist not working for a mainstream media organisation is either denied the right to attend or is escorted out of the conference during the first session as witnessed at COP7 and COP8. The World Health Organisation says this is because these groups and individuals work to further the interests of the tobacco industry – due to it reclassifying vape products as tobacco products.
On top of that, streaming is cut from individual sessions so that nobody can follow the proceedings.
Do these consumer groups receive tobacco industry funding?
No. All the signatories to the letter are completely independent and receive no funding from the tobacco or vape industries.
What do they believe?
The letter to the High Commissioner states: “When adults who smoke switch to safer alternatives to smoking, they reduce the harm caused by smoking. Therefore, such decisions are legitimate expressions of the Right to Health. Encouraging harm reduction helps people to take positive steps to protect their own health, whilst also respecting their freedoms and entitlements.”
This evidence-based approach has been used successfully in a number of nations – none more so than in the United Kingdom where smoking rates are now at an all-time low due to our public health bodies encouraging smokers to switch to vapes if they have struggled with traditional approaches.
The Trouble with Turkmenistan
The World Health Organisation argues that tobacco harm reduction policies are not required, and that vaping’s benefits can be achieved without ecigs. In doing so, it points to Turkmenistan and its claimed rate of tobacco use below 5%, saying: “Switching from one harmful product to another is not a solution. Promoting a so-called ‘harm reduction approach’ to smoking is another way the tobacco industry is trying to mislead people about the inherently dangerous nature of these products.”
Sandwiched between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran, Turkmenistan is said to be “ruled by one of the most oppressive and authoritarian governments in the world, with no progress in its atrocious human rights record. The government severely impedes all fundamental rights and freedoms, including freedoms of association, information, and movement.”
The signatories to the letter say that very little faith can be placed in the World Health Organisation and Turkmenistan’s smoke-free claims given that “independent journalism is virtually non-existent, and data collection is sufficiently poor that Turkmenistan was the only sovereign nation in the world to report no cases of COVID-19”.
On the other hand, countries such as Sweden and the United Kingdom have robust academic structures with independent, peer-reviewed science which amply demonstrates how well products like vapes have worked to reduce smoking.
The High Commissioner’s letter states: “Harm reduction strategies are supported by the weight of scientific evidence that shows that safer alternative nicotine products are effective tools to help people who smoke to switch and stay away from smoking.”
An overview of the wealth of evidence was supplied with the letter (Addressing common myths about vaping – Putting the evidence in context and Balancing Consideration of the Risks and Benefits of E-Cigarettes), and the signatories informed him that “government-supported harm reduction strategies should be not just a ‘nice-to-have’, but obligatory under the Right to Health”.
What would the vapers and experts like to see happen?
The letter states that pervious High Commissioners have recognised the importance of a harm reduction approach for illegal drug use and that it is time for the UN to recognise the important role ecigs can play in helping smokers.
It asks the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to encourage the World Health Organisation to recognise the use of vapes “as a legitimate and evidence-based strategy”, to review its position considering the latest scientific and empirical evidence, to support nations to adopt harm reduction policies that encourage vaping, to welcome charities speaking for vapers to be welcomed at COP10, and for the Commissioner himself to attend the conference.
With the World Health Organisation extremely unlikely to alter its position, any advances will be down to the High Commissioner being willing to engage and the UK delegation being brave enough to speak up about our experiences and success.