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By Brian Monteith – 3 minute read

LATER THIS YEAR, the UK government will have the opportunity to assert its sovereignty and showcase progress towards its smokefree 2030 target on the global stage. The government has introduced a tobacco control policy focused on harm reduction. This policy contradicts the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations for national bans on e-cigarettes and heat-not-burn products. Instead, the UK’s strategy encourages switching to less harmful alternatives, which can potentially lead to healthier outcomes and help smokers quit.

In a world-leading move, UK Health Minister Neil O’Brien MP announced plans to inspire up to one million smokers to swap cigarettes for vapes. The announcement also includes financial incentives for pregnant women to make the switch and provides one in five smokers with e-cigarette starter kits and support to quit smoking. This bold step challenges those advocating nicotine bans and is likely to face opposition at the WHO’s 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) on the Framework for Tobacco Control in November.

The UK delegation may be perceived as promoting an undesirable policy, as the WHO aims to impose global regulations on national governments. This organisation, largely influenced by China, has long opposed harm reduction and vaping, favouring outright bans instead.

The WHO’s stance is exemplified by its Director-General’s Special Recognition Award to Dr Harsh Vardhan, India’s Minister for Health and Family Welfare, for his work banning e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products in 2019. Ironically, Dr Vardhan, who has dedicated his life to reducing tobacco use in India, might have hindered progress and increased risk by banning harm reduction alternatives.

The UK government’s harm reduction policy is more pragmatic and has a greater potential for success. It provides smokers with a choice, offering them information and encouragement to try a less harmful alternative. Research consistently fails to reveal harms that would justify a ban on vapes.

Working with human nature, which often includes curiosity and resistance to authority, suggests that bans and prohibitive taxes can be counterproductive, rendering products more appealing instead. It is more effective for governments to work with individual freedoms and promote the health and economic benefits of switching.

While the UK government should be commended for its boldness, it must also stand up to the WHO and resist the imposition of a universal tobacco control policy. Embracing harm reduction alternatives is essential for the UK to achieve its smokefree goals and help smokers lead healthier lives through quitting or transitioning to less harmful products.

The UK’s decision to reclaim control from the EU was not intended to surrender power to a less democratic and accountable organisation like the WHO. The UK must assert its right to develop its own tobacco control policies and remain steadfast in its commitment to harm reduction.

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Brian Monteith has worked in public relations for forty years, initially in the City, then Scotland and finally as an international consultant in Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. A former member of the European and Scottish parliaments, he is Director of Communications at Global Britain and editor of ThinkScotland.org.

Photo of WHO’s Geneva headquarters from Adobe Stock

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