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World Health Organization Shamed Further by 100 Experts

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

In recent years, the World Health Organization (WHO) keeps stumbling from one embarrassing episode to another. This week it has been embarrassed once again by a letter signed by 100 specialists in nicotine science, policy and practice, condemning the organization’s stance on tobacco harm reduction. 


In 2017, the global health agency attracted widespread ridicule when Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus installed brutal Zimbabwean Dictator, Robert Mugabe, as a goodwill ambassador. The WHO has more recently been criticized heavily for slavishly kowtowing to the Chinese government.  

It is also widely recognized that the WHO did not adequately assess the threat of COVID at the beginning of the outbreak. Despite reports of the virus escaping the confines of China, it was not until mid-March 2020 that the WHO finally conceded that widespread community transmission was occurring and officially declared a pandemic.

Perhaps if it had kept its eye on the ball with infectious diseases, instead of focusing on ideological nanny state finger-wagging, it may have performed better. For example, on January 21, 2020, it was clear that countries outside of China were reporting Covid cases, but the WHO chose to publish a series of 14 tweets about the dangers of vaping, including claims such as e-cigarette liquid being highly flammable and that secondhand vapor is lethal to bystanders, both of which are entirely false. 

This was not the first time that the WHO has got its priorities all wrong when it comes to deadly diseases.  In 2014, previous Director-General, Margaret Chan, ducked a conference discussing the fast-growing outbreak of Ebola in Africa.  Instead, she flew to Moscow to have tea with Vladimir Putin and deliver a speech implying that tobacco control efforts to fight e-cigarettes is a more important use of her time.


One may wonder why the WHO is acting in this manner when they are being attacked and embarrassed by experts who would normally be expected to support the WHO’s decision-making in this policy area. The problem is that a large funder of WHO activities is American multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg is openly hostile to harm reduction and his billions pay for a huge volume of dubious cherry-picked research which plays up negatives surrounding reduced risk products while completely ignoring the far greater evidence of their benefits. This skewed research populates the WHO’s flawed evidence base and is frustrating many experts in the nicotine policy field.

It is this misguided and unscientific opposition to reduced risk products that the 100 experts have, this week, objected to. They strongly criticized the WHO’s dogmatic drive for prohibition or excessive regulation and taxation of vaping products, heated and smokeless tobacco products, and novel oral nicotine products such as pouches. 

In a document accompanying the letter, many of the signatories expressed their concerns further. They used words such as "propaganda," "misinformation," "non science-based," and "denial," amongst other condemnatory terms, to deliver a blistering attack on the WHO’s ignorance as to how reduced risk nicotine products can present a big public health bonus, and how the current WHO approach does nothing except protect the incumbent cigarette trade. Two former WHO directors even go so far as to describe what the WHO is doing as an “illogical and perverse approach.”


This letter comes hot on the heels of an article published in August at the American Journal of Public Health co-authored by 15 past presidents of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, a prime academic global organization involved with nicotine and tobacco evidence-based research. The officials stated that “this article’s authors believe that vaping can benefit public health, given substantial evidence supporting the potential of vaping to reduce smoking’s toll,” a view certainly not shared by the WHO. 

There is, of course, another major funder of the WHO. The taxpayer. There was a backlash against then-U.S. President Trump’s move to defund the organization, but it is hard to justify tax receipts being used in this way if the WHO is insistent on ignoring true scientific research in favor of pandering to the whims and prejudices of a so-called philanthropist with deep pockets instead of what is good for global public health. 

This latest self-inflicted embarrassment by 100 of its own should signal to the WHO that a serious rethink to its approach is needed. If not, there is a debate to be had as to whether its error-ridden existence is worth paying for with our taxes.


Martin Cullip is the International Fellow at The Taxpayers Protection Alliance's Consumer Center and is based in South London, UK. 

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