The World Health Organization's Tough Tactics Against Tobacco and E-Cigs

The United Nations' public health agency achieves consensus through mass detentions and media censorship.


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In India today, tobacco use is so widespread, a million deaths every year are attributed to its use. Tobacco can be stuffed inside of a wide variety of cigarettes and beedis, minced into a masala of spices known as gutka, or piled on top of paan – a leafy, addictive stimulant that multiplies a user's risk of oral cancer almost tenfold.

Those million deaths a year are one reason why the Seventh Session of the Conference of the Parties is being held in Delhi this year. Run by the World Health Organization (WHO), the conference is dedicated to curbing tobacco use through education, taxation, bans, and worldwide enforcement against smuggling operations. One-hundred-and-eighty signatory nations are bound to follow the bylaws passed behind these doors.

But who gets a say in what the WHO does is a hotly contest matter. Only thirty members of the public and selected members of the media are treated to limited, stage managed press conferences. Nations like China, with state-owned tobacco monopolies, are warmly welcomed, but anyone with the slightest connection to a private tobacco industry is shown the exit. Large pharmaceutical companies generously fund conference attendees, while their anti-tobacco products like Nicorette gum compete with products that the WHO views unfavorably, like electronic cigarettes.

The secretive nature of the conference didn't go over well with India's tobacco farmers. After a few minutes of protest outside the convention, 500 farmers were corralled by police and detained inside this local police station. After a brief negotiation and a bribe offered from an unnamed source outside of ReasonTV, leaders of the movement were temporarily released to speak with us outside the walls of the police station.

As the farmers were being released from jail that evening, convention delegates voted to expel the media from the remainder of the conference. Drew Johnson, a reporter and columnist for The Daily Caller, decided to stand up for transparency by staying seated in the press gallery. He was forcibly ejected.

If it's hard to understand why a $4 billion organization like the WHO feels threatened by the average Indian farmer who lives on $3 a day, it's worth recalling the source of all the hostility. By hook or by crook, the tobacco industry has pushed back against every public health measure in the last fifty years. The result is today's polarized debate, one that values the elimination of tobacco over jobs, transparency, and consumer choice.

Expanding its authority beyond tobacco control, e-cigarettes and vape products now find themselves potentially subject to a worldwide ban. Delegates to the convention have expressed support for "a complete ban on the sale, manufacture, import and export of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems". Small but determined activist communities like Asian Vape Association, are already fighting back, organizing their own counter-conferences in Delhi this year.

It can't be easy getting 180 signatory nations to agree on much of anything. This year, the Seventh Session of the Congress of the Parties resolved only two things of note: reaffirming their determination to regulate vaping products. And further limiting access to the convention by the public, due to potential tobacco industry interference. Two resolutions that seemed designed to elicit more public protest at the next conference, two years from now.

Produced, photographed, narrated, and edited by Todd Krainin.

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