UK Parliament Backbench Debate: Is WHO Really Doing Good for Human Health?

Special Report by Charlotte Yu
UK Parliament Backbench Debate: Is WHO Really Doing Good for Human Health?
Without tax (price) incentives and flavor differentiation compared to traditional cigarettes, there would be little motivation for people to quit smoking.

A backbench debate was held on Jan 18 in the UK Parliament as the tenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (COP10) is scheduled to take place in Panama from February 5 to 10, and the UK will be sending a delegation.


The debate, initiated by Members of Parliament Andrew Lewer, Mr. Virendra Sharma, and Martyn Day, aimed to challenge the WHO's opposition to e-cigarettes, focusing on the regulation of e-cigarettes in the UK, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the differing stances of the organization and the UK government on e-cigarettes.


The WHO for a long time has been committed to controlling the use of tobacco and nicotine products, particularly e-cigarettes. According to reports from December 14, 2023, the organization emphasized the need for urgent action to control e-cigarettes, aiming to protect children and non-smokers while minimizing health risks to the public. The WHO pointed out that the nicotine present in e-cigarettes is highly addictive and harmful to health.


During the debate on Thursday, Member of Parliament Andrew Lewer argued against this perspective. He cited research from Cancer Research UK, stating that "it's not nicotine but the chemicals produced during the combustion of tobacco that cause lung cancer."


Based on this theoretical finding, MP Andrew Lewer throughout the debate addressed vaporized e-cigarettes as "tobacco harm reduction products," aligning with the broader direction of the UK government's tobacco control policy. He insisted on two central arguments. First, new tobacco products, including vaporized e-cigarettes, should not be subject to the same tax rates as traditional cigarettes. Second, flavored vaporized e-cigarettes should not be banned. He argued that without tax (price) incentives and flavor differentiation compared to traditional cigarettes, there would be little motivation for people to quit smoking.


UK Parliament Backbench Debate: Is WHO Really Doing Good for Human Health?
Andrew Lewer, a member of parliament who spoke in the backbench debate on January 18th | Image source: 2FIRSTS


In addition to urging the UK delegation to maintain its stance on the smoking cessation role of e-cigarettes in international conferences, Andrew Lewer also questioned the entire WHO institution during the debate and raised the issue of whether the UK should review the scale of its donations to the organization. This is because the UK is currently one of the largest funders of the WHO, and there is a need to ensure that "taxpayers' money is well utilized."


Later in the debate, co-initiator Virendra Sharma stated, "COP10 and WHO should not make it harder for those who want to quit smoking with e-cigarettes." Therefore, policies that excessively regulate e-cigarettes, heated tobacco, and oral nicotine pouches are worthy of debate.


He also mentioned that although the UK is a global leader in tobacco harm reduction policies, it can still learn from other countries' successful experiences in using new nicotine products to control smoking. He cited Japan and Sweden as examples where heated tobacco and oral snus significantly reduced smoking rates. There are better ways for the UK to achieve a better outcome through compromise.


Labour politician and Member of Parliament for Bristol South, Karin Marguerite Smyth, also participated in the debate. After expressing anticipation for the UK delegation's participation in the treaty conference and conveying the country's voice, she mentioned that many MPs have received letters from constituents inquiring about e-cigarettes and smoking because it will be a central topic at COP10. Voters are concerned about whether this conference will change the future use of e-cigarettes by British citizens. She asked the Minister of Public Health if there are plans to include other nicotine products in the upcoming government bill's regulatory process.


UK Parliament Backbench Debate: Is WHO Really Doing Good for Human Health?
Virendra Sharma | Image source: 2FIRSTS


The responsibility of responding to inquiries in this debate fell on Dame Andrea Jacqueline Leadsom, who has taken office as the Deputy Minister of Public Health, Start for Life, and Primary Care since November 2023. She expressed opposing views to some points raised by the aforementioned MPs.


Using her own experience of teenage smoking and the challenging process of quitting, she stated that claiming nicotine is entirely harmless is "wrong" and reiterated the addictive nature of nicotine. She also raised some questions, mentioning that flavors like cherryade and bubble-gum are not designed for adults. These flavors and packaging resembling little Coke bottles or brightly colored like bubble-gum are clearly "aimed at children." The fact that e-cigarettes are placed next to candies, sold conveniently at pocket-money prices is concerning. Therefore, she urged MPs not to "naively look at this issue" and emphasized that only strong enforcement measures can ensure that e-cigarettes are not sold to minors.


UK Parliament Backbench Debate: Is WHO Really Doing Good for Human Health?
Dame Andrea Jacqueline Leadsom who spoke in the back seat debate on January 18th | Image source: 2FIRSTS


Regarding the upcoming COP10, she described the UK as a "unique case" on the issue of e-cigarettes and stated that the country will present its position at the conference, emphasizing that e-cigarettes are a crucial tool to help adults quit smoking. "But as for whether there should be a change in the current level of donations to the WHO, the UK government tends to maintain the existing level." She concluded by stating that she will provide a statement to the Parliament after COP10 to update on the proceedings.


E-cigarettes in Backbench Debates


This is not the first time tobacco (or novel tobacco) has appeared in backbench debates in the UK.


Backbench debates, also known as Westminster Hall debates, allow MPs to raise local or national issues and receive responses from government ministers.


According to incomplete statistics, in June 2020, government MPs revolted against the ban on people importing liquid nicotine for e-cigarettes; on November 3, 2022, the House of Commons debated the Independent Review of Smokefree 2030 policies; and earlier this week, there was another debate on e-cigarettes. On January 16, a debate hosted by Conservative MP Peter Gibson discussed issues related to illicit (gray) market vaping products and underage illegal vaping.


The UK's stance on novel tobacco, especially e-cigarettes, has consistently differed from the WHO's perspective. The UK government has been supportive of e-cigarettes as an alternative to reduce the harm of smoking. According to the UK government's viewpoint, e-cigarettes can help smokers quit, and their harm is much lower than that of traditional tobacco products.


A report from Policy Exchange indicates that smoking has a significant impact on the economy, and reducing smoking rates not only improves health conditions and alleviates the burden on the national health service but also promotes productivity and economic growth.


2FIRSTS will continue to monitor the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (COP10) in Panama, as well as developments in UK tobacco control policies and regulations for both traditional and novel tobacco products.

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