British Parliament backbench debate: Is WHO really helping people quit smoking?

British Parliament backbench debate: Is WHO really helping people quit smoking?

On January 18, the British Parliament held a backbench debate (allowing backbench MPs to raise local or national issues and obtain responses from relevant government ministers), focusing on the regulation of e-cigarettes in the UK, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the The different stances of organizations and the UK government on e-cigarettes unfold. The debate was co-sponsored by MPs Andrew Lewer, Mr Virendra Sharma and Martyn Day to challenge the WHO’s negative stance on e-cigarette control.

“Don’t look at this naively”

Previously, the 10th Conference of the Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), which was forced to be postponed, has been officially scheduled to be held in Panama from February 5 to 10. The UK will send a delegation to participate in this meeting, and discussion of new tobacco issues will become one of the focuses of the meeting.

WHO has long been committed to controlling the use of tobacco and nicotine products, especially e-cigarettes. According to a report on December 14, 2023, WHO emphasized the need to take urgent action to control e-cigarettes to protect children and non-smokers and minimize health hazards to the population. WHO points out that the nicotine contained in e-cigarettes is highly addictive and harmful to health.

Councilor Andrew defended this at the meeting. Citing research from Cancer Research UK, he said, "It is not nicotine but the chemicals produced during the combustion of tobacco that cause lung cancer."

Based on such theoretical findings, Senator Andrew regarded atomized e-cigarettes as "tobacco harm reduction policy products" throughout the debate. This is also the general direction of the British government's tobacco control policy. He maintains two central arguments. One is that new tobacco products, including atomized e-cigarettes, should not be taxed at rates similar to traditional cigarettes; the second is that flavored atomized e-cigarettes should not be banned. "If there's no tax (price) benefit and there's no taste difference (compared to cigarettes), what's the incentive for people to quit smoking?"

In addition to calling on the British delegation to adhere to the country's position on the role of e-cigarettes in smoking cessation at international meetings, Andrew also questioned the entire WHO agency during the debate and also raised whether to review the scale of the UK's contribution to the agency. Because the UK is currently one of the largest donors to the WHO, it must ensure that "taxpayers' money is well used."

Virendra, the co-sponsor of the debate who spoke later, said, "COP10 and WHO should not make it more difficult for people who want to quit smoking with e-cigarettes." Therefore, the policy of over-regulating e-cigarettes, heated tobacco and oral nicotine pouches is Debatable.

He also said that although the UK leads the world in nicotine harm reduction policies, it can still refer to the advanced experience of other countries in using new nicotine products to successfully control tobacco. He cited Japan and Sweden as examples, where heated cigarettes and organic snus have also helped significantly reduce smoking rates in these two countries. There are still better ways for Britain to compromise and achieve a better result.

Labor politician and Bristol South MP Karin Marguerite Smyth also participated in the debate. After expressing her expectation that the British delegation will participate in the Conference of the Parties and convey the voice of the country, she said that many MPs have received letters from constituents asking questions about e-cigarettes and smoking: because this will be a central issue at COP10. Voters are concerned that this meeting will affect the future use of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation product by British citizens. She asked the Public Health Minister if there were plans to bring other nicotine products into the regulatory process in upcoming government bills.

The person responsible for responding to the inquiry in this debate is Dame Andrea Jacqueline Leadsom, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of Public Health, Life Start and Primary Care who has assumed the new position since November 2023. , she held contrary views to some of the arguments put forward by the aforementioned MPs.

Citing her own experiences with teenage smoking and the difficulty of quitting smoking, she said it would be "wrong" to say nicotine is completely harmless and reiterated its addictive nature. She also questioned some of the views of the aforementioned lawmakers. She said the cherry soda and bubble gum flavors are not designed for adults. These flavors and packaging that resembles small Coke bottles or bubble gum are clearly "for kids." E-cigarettes are displayed at stalls next to candy and are sold at low prices and can be purchased with pocket money—all of which are worrying. She therefore called on MPs not to be "naive about this issue". He also said that only strong law enforcement measures can ensure that e-cigarettes will not be sold to minors.

Regarding the upcoming COP10, she described the UK as indeed an "outlier" on the issue of e-cigarettes, so the UK's position will be clearly presented at the meeting, that is, e-cigarettes are a very important tool to help adults quit smoking. "But regarding whether the current amount of donations to the WHO should be changed, the British government prefers to maintain the current level." She finally said that she would provide a statement to Parliament after COP10 to explain the situation at the meeting.

E-cigarettes in backbench debate

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

According to incomplete statistics, in June 2020, members of the coalition government launched a debate to resist the ban on the import of liquid nicotine for e-cigarettes; on November 3, 2022, the House of Commons also held an independent review of the 2030 anti-smoking policy. debate; and earlier this week there was another debate about e-cigarettes. On January 16, a debate hosted by Conservative MP Peter Gibson discussed issues regarding black/grey clearance (illegal entry) of atomized e-cigarettes and the illegal use of e-cigarettes by minors.

The UK’s position on new tobacco, especially atomized e-cigarettes, has always been significantly different from that of the WHO. The British government has always supported e-cigarettes as an alternative to reduce the harm of smoking. According to the British government, e-cigarettes can help smokers quit smoking and are far less harmful than traditional tobacco products.

A report from the British Policy Exchange shows that smoking has a huge impact on the economy, and reducing smoking rates can not only improve health conditions and reduce the burden on the National Health Service, but also promote productivity and economic growth.
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