Standing for harm reduction: The EU's duty to smokers worldwide

The pressure of the WHO to put all nicotine products under the same category means lost potential for thousands of smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives.

By Liza Katsiashvili

Liza Katsiashvili is Community Manager at the World Vapers’ Alliance. She studied at the CEVRO Institute in Prague and has worked for different grassroots movements. Liza lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.

04 Sep 2023

In an increasingly interconnected world, the actions of one region can reverberate far beyond its borders. Nowhere is this more evident than in matters of public health and harm reduction. As the European Union grapples with its stance on harm reduction strategies for smokers, the implications of its decisions stretch well beyond its borders, impacting global health and the fight against smoking-related harm.

Panama will be hosting the Tenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) this year in November, and it will carry significant importance for the future of public health. The results will affect harm reduction and vaping policies globally. However, the chance that COP10 will favour harm reduction approaches and vaping is highly doubtful, considering the strict approach that WHO has held against vaping in previous years.

Recently, another large US-wide study emphasised the effectiveness and the value of vaping as a smoking cessation aid. Not to consider what we already have known from Public Health England for years - that vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking. Of course, the list of positive results does not end there. The only reason why WHO has neglected this evidence is because it has already taken a side in the vaping debate.

Prohibition failing all the way

There are examples of multiple countries where the prohibition on vaping has already carried negative implications or will do so in the future.

For instance, India, which signed WHO FCTC in 2003, banned vaping in 2019. Prohibition in the country has been a major failure , driving consumers to the black market and putting them at risk of consuming riskier products than the ones available  on the legal market.

Similarly, Bangladesh, the first developing country to sign the WHO FCTC in 2003, is following in India’s footsteps and is on its way to banning vaping - not only turning a blind eye to science but also repeating the same mistake as India’s closes geographic neighbor c.

We also can see the tensions in Kazakhstan, where the government decided to ban vaping under the WHO’s advice even though experts and local vape advocates warned that more black markets are likely to emerge due to the prohibition.

The pressure of WHO to put all nicotine products under the same category and prohibit them affects not only a single country’s domestic policy but also causes a chain reaction leading to irreversible illicit trade and lost potential for thousands of smokers to switch to less harmful alternatives.

Is there a way  for this vicious circle to break?

The EU, where progress is finding its way regardless of the challenging regulatory environment, can become a deus ex machina in the story of endless counterproductive prohibitions. Even though most countries across the EU have not taken the chance to embrace harm reduction policies, there is a country that serves as empirical evidence for  how THR policies can positively affect public health.

That country is Sweden, which, in fact, is close to achieving the goal of becoming the first smoke-free country in the EU. All of that is not the result of prohibitions or severe regulations but the fact that Swedish policymakers endorse harm reduction methods and allow adult consumers to choose less risky alternatives to conventional cigarettes.

Will the EU use its chance to reverse the seemingly hopeless situation, and support adult consumers and their choice to quit deadly combustion?

Only the future holds the full answer to this question. However, EU policymakers  should be aware that there is still time to stop the carousel of prohibitions, follow  an example of Sweden, rethink the smoking cessation strategy and acknowledge that so far, the only countries succeeding at it have been endorsing harm reduction methods and following science. The EU must not allow COP10 to become the graveyard of harm reduction.