The tenth Conference of Parties (COP 10) of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) meeting on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is currently underway in Panama until February 10th, 2024.
At the heart of the discussions are the tobacco policies that significantly influence national regulations, particularly in Low and Middle-Income countries where WHO regulations hold sway. Amidst these deliberations, advocates for non-combustible products, including vapes, nicotine pouches, and heat-not-burn products, find themselves grappling to be included in the conversation.
The WHO’s strict regulation of these products mirrors its approach to cigarettes, despite being recognized as less harmful than traditional smoking by esteemed bodies such as the US Food and Drug Administration, Public Health England, and other segments of the scientific community.
In contrast, the WHO maintains a stance that all nicotine use, by definition, is harmful and should be regulated on principle.
The exclusion of harm reduction advocates from the discussions has prompted activists and organizations worldwide, such as The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA), to organize alternative events on the sidelines of COP 10.
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to public education on the government’s economic impact. South African Kurt Yeo, a co-founder of VSML (Vaping Saved My Life) and a speaker at one of the TPA side events, engages with policymakers in South Africa on tobacco and nicotine-related legislation.
Yeo expressed his perspective on the reluctance to include harm reduction in the conversations: “I think it has to do with the impact the tobacco industry has had on public health. I understand it because there were a lot of lies, deception, and significant costs, not just in human terms but also in terms of mistrust. However, the world is different now, and we need to have this conversation. It’s okay to disagree, but let’s talk about this. Additionally, cynically speaking, the WHO may not want to discuss it, because supporting harm reduction challenges the very structure built around something harmful.”
And when asked about when the paradigm will shift, he went on: “In the next five years, not really. Maybe in ten. When science catches up with reality, I think governments around the world will start seeing, particularly African governments, that they got this wrong. If these products weren’t acceptable, enjoyable, and effective, we wouldn’t see this growth of harm reduction products throughout the world. We are not looking closer at a hundred million users on the world. That is an incredible growth over a short period of time and at the same time, we are not seeing too many adverse effects. And there is also a form of hypocrisy where in South Africa, we want to ban vaping and we have just legalized cannabis for personal consumption. Things don’t make sense. And unfortunately, it is nothing to do with anything other than politics.”
According to the WHO, the number of smokers has increased by 104% in North Africa (and the Middle East) and 75% in Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1990’s. It is the place in the world, where the prevalence of smokers has witnessed the highest rise.