Public health experts have responded rapidly and assertively to unfounded claims about vaping from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Just days after WHO claimed that ‘e-cigarettes are not safe’ scientists have responded to put things right.
WHO famously holds a firm anti-vaping stance. The organisation’s recent outbursts are all too familiar and follow a pattern of spreading misinformation about e-cigarettes. Thankfully, leading scientists from the UK have been quick to respond, but had the damage already been done?
On Monday, 20th January, a number of grossly inaccurate assertions were made by the World Health organisation in an online Q&A page titled ‘e-cigarettes: how risky are they?’ The organisation posed a series of questions regarding the safety of e-cigarettes. The answers are so ludicrously incorrect, it’s as if the piece is a parody.
Further down this article you can find all the questions with analysis of the answers. But, before we get to that, let’s have a look at the experts’ opinions on them to get a taste of just how misplaced these claims are.
Leading Health Experts’ Response
Peter Hajek, director of the Tobacco Dependence Research Unit at Queen Mary University of London seemed incensed. He said,
“The WHO has a history of anti-vaping activism that is damaging their reputation. This document is particularly malign,”.
He then went on to say
“There is no evidence that vaping is ‘highly addictive’. Less than 1% of non-smokers become regular vapers. Vaping does not lead young people to smoking—smoking among young people is at [an] all-time low. … There is clear evidence that e-cigarettes help smokers quit,”
Professor John Britton, Director of UKCTAS also shared Hajek’s concerns over the WHO’s spread of misinformation. He said,
“WHO misrepresents the available scientific evidence,” before going on to restate that “Public Health England maintains that vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking cigarettes.”
Liam Humberstone, Totally Wicked Technical Director, comments,
“It has become difficult to understand whether WHO is under some malignant influence, or they have simply lost the plot entirely. Their statements directly conflict with all credible research findings, and are completely misrepresentative of fact.”
So, what has been said to rile these experts up so much?
The World Health Organisation’s false claims
“Are E-cigarettes and other vaping products dangerous?”
The first question posed is ‘Are e-cigarettes and other vaping products dangerous?’ This whole section is fundamentally flawed to the point where the organisation seems to be simply making things up. Apparently “ENDS [e-cigarettes] increase the risk of heart disease and lung disorders”. There is no reliable evidence to support this. In fact, in November 2019 a comprehensive study showed that switching to vaping has a positive effect on the heart.
The WHO also claimed that for pregnant women, “ENDS [e-cigarettes] can damage an unborn foetus”. Again, there is no reliable evidence to suggest this. In 2019, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) released guidance which encouraged the use of e-cigarettes in pregnancy if the mother was struggling to quit smoking.
Further on in the section, WHO claims “ENDS [e-cigarettes] also expose non-smokers and bystanders to nicotine and other harmful chemicals”. This is incorrect. There have been numerous studies into the potential of harm by passive vaping. In 2019, Professor John Britton explained that ‘there is no evidence of harm to other people’ and explained that it is merely a “courtesy issue”.
“Do e-cigarettes (ENDS) cause lung injuries”
The World Health Organisation then lays blame on e-cigarettes for the cases of illness and death in the USA. It reads “United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated an emergency investigation into links between ENDS use and lung injuries and deaths.” Since then and before this WHO piece was released, The Centre for Disease and Control has updated its evidence to show a very firm connection between the cases and Vitamin E Acetate. This is not the fault of e-cigarettes, it’s the fault of the informal vendors in illicit markets who have been selling THC containing liquids.
“Are e-cigarettes more dangerous than regular cigarettes”
This section is arguably the most irresponsible of them all. E-cigarettes are intended as a safer alternative to smoking and are helping millions of people fully switch over and ditch cigarettes. Despite Public Health England and various global health bodies stating on numerous occasions that e-cigarettes are far safer than regular cigarettes, the WHO fails to acknowledge the point. Instead it states “This depends on a range of factors, including the amount of nicotine and other toxicants in the heated liquids, but we know that ENDS pose clear health risks and are by no means safe.”
This completely undermines the hard work and research that recognised health bodies have done to ensure smokers are correctly informed of their suitable options.
“Are ENDS addictive”
This is potentially the only question that WHO manged to nearly answer correctly. They said “Yes. Nicotine is highly addictive, and ENDS involve the inhalation of a nicotine-infused aerosol.”.
They fail to mention anything about e-liquids coming in different strengths and being designed so that former smokers can reduce their nicotine dependency.
“Are second hand ENDS emissions dangerous?”
This was covered in the first section and is still hasn’t changed since you read it earlier. However, in this section the World Health Organisation adds in another lie… “ENDS typically contain toxic substances, including glycol which is used to make antifreeze.”
Propylene glycol (the glycol used in e-cigarettes) is not a toxic substance. It’s defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as GRAS (generally regarded as safe). It’s also used in various everyday food items.
“Should ENDS be banned?”
The WHO may as well have just written, “All countries should ban e-cigarettes because we want more people to smoke”, as this is what they appear to mean. They actually wrote “Countries can choose to ban ENDS. ENDS are currently banned in over 30 countries worldwide, with more and more countries considering bans to protect young people.”
This is technically correct; however, it doesn’t really answer the question they posed.
“Should ENDS be regulated?”
We agree with World Health Organisation that yes, e-cigarettes should be regulated. However, the regulation suggested by the organisation and the reasons behind them are outrageous.
The WHO states “Taxing ENDS in a similar way to tobacco products offers a win–win for governments by protecting citizens through higher prices that deter consumption.”
It also suggests “The use of ENDS in indoor public and work places should be banned, given the health risks posed to non-users.”
Both of these suggestions are based on the misinformation the organisation has spread earlier on in the article. The only thing this regulation would do is force vapers back to smoking, resulting a greater risk to health for these people.
“Do ENDS help you quit smoking?”
In the UK, there are currently 3.6 million vapers in the UK. Over half of these have quit smoking completely. A milestone study was conducted at the start of 2019 into the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a cessation aid. It showed that e-cigarettes are almost twice as effective as patches and gum.
Despite this, The WHO is apparently not convinced. According to them, “There is not enough evidence to support the use of these products for smoking cessation.” The organisation then goes on to promote tradition NRTs such as patches and gum which, as previously mentioned, have proved to be around half as effective as e-cigarettes.
“What is WHO doing about ENDS?”
The WHO response to this question is as follows.
“WHO regularly monitors and reviews the evidence on ENDS and health and offers guidance to governments and the public.
This includes the biennial WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, which tracks the status of the tobacco epidemic and interventions to combat it and other relevant resources.
WHO strives to build a safer, healthier world for everyone, everywhere.”
This is what the WHO really meant…
“WHO regularly monitors and reviews all negative evidence regarding ENDS no matter how unreliable it is.
This includes the biennial WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, which is the perfect platform to showcase this unreliable negative evidence regarding e-cigarettes.
WHO strives to influence policies in the best interest of its key stakeholders.”