Världshälsoorganisationen, WHO, World Health Organization

WHO deferral on tobacco harm reduction ‘tragic’ for smokers

The World Health Organization, WHO, has indicated it won’t include harm reduction in its tobacco strategy until at least 2023, a move that will likely have dire consequences for millions of smokers.

“How many people will have to die from smoking before the WHO opens its eyes,” says Patrik Strömer, Secretary General of the Association of Swedish Snus Manufacturers.

In August, the WHO released the agenda for the Ninth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO FCTC (COP9), set to take place in November 2021.

There had been hopes that the biennial meeting, originally scheduled for November 2020 but pushed back due to the pandemic, would include discussions about tobacco harm reduction.

But the topic was noticeably absent from the agenda, making it clear that tobacco harm reduction wouldn’t be part of FCTC discussions for at least the next two years.

“The Bureau decided that the reports prepared by WHO (Comprehensive report on research and evidence on novel and emerging tobacco products, contained in document FCTC/COP/9/9) and by the Convention Secretariat (Challenges posed by and classification of novel and emerging tobacco products, contained in document FCTC/COP/9/10), should be presented for information and that related substantive discussions should be deferred to COP10,” the WHO writes in the provisional agenda for COP9.

WHO ignores current research 

Every year, eight million people die worldwide as a result of tobacco smoking.

There are several products, such as snus and nicotine pouches, that offer a less harmful alternative to deadly cigarettes. And despite the growing body of research that highlights the benefits of these harm-reducing alternatives, the WHO has nevertheless decided to postpone substantive discussions on the issue.

While disappointing to many advocates keen to see the WHO recognize the harness the harm reduction potential of snus, the body’s stance on tobacco harm reduction comes as no surprise.

Earlier this summer, the WHO released a report that paints new nicotine and tobacco products as a major threat to public health.

Criticism from leading experts

Several leading harm reduction experts slammed the report shortly after it was published. They argued that the WHO continued to focus on the wrong things, instead of facilitating the transition away from cigarettes to less harmful alternatives.

“Smoking-related cancer, heart disease and lung disease will eventually disappear as smoking is made obsolete by much less risky nicotine products that do not include combustion,” said Professor Peter Hajek, Director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit, Queen Mary University of London.

Snusforumet has previously interviewed Clive Bates, a staunch tobacco harm reduction advocate and an influential voice in debates on tobacco policy and public health.

Speaking with the online magazine Filter, Bates accused the WHO of producing “propaganda” that unfairly maligns alternative nicotine products like snus or e-cigarettes. The health body, he argued is “casually and carelessly putting millions of lives at risk”.

“The problem isn’t what goes into the meeting agenda, but the fact that WHO actually wants to ban vaping while cigarettes are available everywhere,” he told the magazine in response to the release of the COP9 agenda.

‘Tragic’ decision by World Health Organization

The head of the Association of Swedish Snus Manufacturers, Patrik Strömer, agrees with Bates and other critics that the World Health Organization’s hostility towards new nicotine products and tobacco harm reduction causes direct harm to the world’s smokers.

“Sadly, I’m not surprised. But it’s really tragic that such an important international voice like the WHO doesn’t want to examine the scientific evidence that exists today and recognize the harm reduction potential of alternative nicotine products as another tool in the fight to reduce the number of deaths attributable to cigarettes,” says Strömer.

“Now we will be forced to wait at least another two years, with potentially millions more unnecessary deaths as a result.”