Tobacco control activists like to point to a 1969 internal memo at the now-defunct Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation that put forth a strategy to counter the then-increasing wealth of evidence linking smoking with disease. Their plan was simple, they would work to mislead the public, with the memo urging employees to use doubt as “the means of establishing a controversy.”
Half-a-century on, we now see the World Health Organization (WHO) employing the very same practices from the so-called “Big Tobacco Playbook” as the organization sows doubt and confusion to deliberately mislead smokers about the relative risk of vaping products compared to tobacco.
On 25 May, the WHO updated their Q&A page on e-cigarettes. The information they provide is a model of obfuscation and linguistic trickery which would make any 1960s tobacco executive proud.
The document asks the question if “e-cigarettes [are] more or less dangerous than conventional tobacco cigarettes?” The answer to this is simply that they are far less dangerous. No credible academic would argue otherwise, apart from to debate the exact level of reduction in harm. Yet the WHO cannot bring themselves to admit this indisputable truth.
Instead, the global health agency uses 173 words to skirt the issue and create doubt about a very simple fact. They imply a false equivalence by saying that both tobacco products and e-cigarettes “pose risks to health.” They then proceed to discuss “a range of factors” which can affect risk, none of which are significant enough to deny the overwhelming evidence that vaping is orders of magnitude less harmful than smoking. Rather than answer the question they posed themselves, they use bluster and chicanery to avoid telling the truth.
Elsewhere in the Q&A the WHO casts doubt on vaping products helping people to quit smoking. WHO claims that “evidence on the use of [e-cigarettes] as a cessation aid is inconclusive” despite there now being an estimated 82 million vapers worldwide, almost all of whom were former smokers. The document also implies that second hand vapor is dangerous to bystanders when no evidence whatsoever exists to that effect; hints that regulated nicotine vaping was responsible for lung injuries in the U.S. in when it has been proven to have been caused by illicit THC cartridges; and wildly exaggerates the potential downsides of vaping without any admittance that they could be a life-saving alternative to smoking for millions worldwide.
This is disgraceful behavior by the WHO, as they know very well that vaping products are not remotely comparable with combustible tobacco. The WHO’s anti-vaping ideology has led to a state of affairs whereby the organization appears to have abandoned all pretense of caring about the health of the world’s smokers.
The tobacco industry’s “Merchants of Doubt” in the 1960s and 1970s are roundly and rightfully condemned for deception which led to millions to continue to smoke despite the emerging evidence of harms. The WHO’s actions are arguably worse than that. Health and medical organizations carry a lot more weight and respectability than the tobacco industry ever did, but this highly irresponsible campaign of misinformation by the WHO will be cited around the world to the detriment of public health on every continent. The WHO makes great play of the fact that industry misinformed the public in the past, but how is the misinformation in the WHO Q&A document any less damaging when it can only lead to fewer smokers trying reduced risk products and potentially quitting as a result?
Even anti-vaping public health activists must be quietly embarrassed by the duplicity of the WHO guidance. The organization is treating the health of taxpayers who fund it with contempt in favor of an ideological and political distaste for industry, and in doing so, is ironically protecting the cigarette trade that it claims to oppose.
By deliberately promoting a manufactured controversy strategy over vaping products, the WHO is selling doubt on a scale not seen since the 1970s and should be condemned at least as severely as we condemned Big Tobacco’s deceit 50 years ago.
Martin Cullip is International Fellow at The Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center and is based in South London, UK.