KAC has published an updated version of our Briefing Paper on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s Conference of the Parties (FCTC COP) meeting due to take place in Panama in November. While a billion people still smoke, the WHO and allies deflect attention away from the failure of traditional tobacco control policies to put a significant dent in death and disease from smoking by instead attacking tobacco harm reduction.

Here are links to other serious and considered commentaries on the forthcoming event from Lars Ramström and Clive Bates respectively.

For my part, I take a more absurdist view on what is an absurd situation. Instead of acting in the best interest of universal public health and human rights, the leaders of international tobacco control and public health conduct a campaign against tobacco harm reduction mired in moral absolutism and vested interests.

Imagine a super-intelligent alien from the Planet Thaarg teleports down into the foyer of the venue in Panama City where the Tenth COP is meeting to discuss international tobacco control policies.

She was supposed to be in the 4th Quadrant of the Sky Nebula. But clearly some of the technical staff on Thaarg were not as super-intelligent as our visitor. Anyway, making the best of a bad job, she was intrigued by the subject of this gathering. She quickly realised they were there to discuss a human activity called smoking where humans form a cylinder of rolled up paper and leaves, put it in their single mouths and set fire to it. How weird is that she thought. Only one mouth.

Being super-intelligent, she was able to scan all existing documents on the subject of smoking in a few Thaargian chrono-seconds. Our super-intelligent being was shocked by what she found. Half the humans who do this will die and many more will suffer chronic diseases. The figures run into millions of dead and diseased people. But they can’t stop this smoking or at least find it very difficult. She wondered what those in power were doing about it.

She noted something called FCTC had come into force nearly two decades ago, a long period in Earth time. Yet tobacco was evidently not controlled because smoking is still the primary cause of non-communicable disease. This must be a major public health crisis she thinks. She assumes all efforts are being made to help people stop smoking.

She notices the phrase ‘harm reduction’ in the FCTC but cannot see any explanation of what it means. She does another quick scan which reveals that those in authority have a moral duty to help people move to a healthier life even if they disapprove of individual habits. Sounds reasonable she thinks. You will never get everybody to stop smoking and (she assumed) you don’t want all smokers to die. So it makes sense to help people any way you can.

Also written into the FCTC, she also notes, is a commitment to review and update the Convention considering new scientific and technical developments. Given the time span of the FCTC and the seriousness of the global health crisis, she further assumed there must be new ways of helping people to quit smoking. And lo and behold – there are – she reads about safer nicotine products.

She gathers all the evidence from respected and credible experts across the world which answers the key question – these products are substantially safer than smoking while at the same time acknowledging that although nicotine is addictive, this doesn’t really matter when set against the harms of smoking as nicotine itself is relatively safe.

So she summarises in her super-intelligent brain that death and disease from smoking is rampant, that very little help is available for those who want to quit, but there are some products out there that could help drive down those alarming figures.

So imagine her surprise when she teleports into the FCTC meeting and realises that the meeting leaders deny all this evidence. She goes back and looks again in case she has misread all the material. But no – it’s right. Yet she can find no evidence of this evidence in the Conference hive mentality. All this group of humans want to do is either ban products or at least make them very difficult and expensive to obtain. She gleans the main reason for this is the belief that the whole phenomenon is a ploy by Big Tobacco to hook kids on nicotine (Our super-intelligent being is initially puzzled by the concept of Big Tobacco, imagining some very tall plant capable of running a multi-national business). She also could not understand why the major funder of international tobacco control, called Bloomberg, doesn’t allocate money for stop smoking services.

Puzzled by this reluctance of leaders to take advantage of new ways to tackle smoking, she brain scans the whole meeting. This reveals a confusing mush of obsession and paranoia about this Big T; financial and political investment in tobacco; and convenient political grandstanding about an alleged vaping ‘epidemic’ among young Earthlings. On one desk she notes a document entitled “WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic 2023: Protect people from tobacco smoke”. So it seemed to her that while the WHO purports to focus on smoking prevention, it is actually conducting a war against nicotine which causes none of the death and disease from smoking.

She observes there are no political leaders at the COP, no top scientists, just a bunch of middling non-expert bureaucrats on holiday to sign off on proposals already agreed back home. Few seem to have read any of the documents. Day one starts with many boring speeches about supporting the WHO and commitments to end smoking. Each one of our super-intelligent being’s ten eyes close one by one. She jerks awake to see the whole public gallery cleared, so the only people who can stay are these nodding dogs of tobacco control. She concludes the WHO and its minions get away with this non-democratic, secretive process because few if any of those attending are elected by voters and so do not have to answer to them. She wonders why the countries who presumably pay for the COP let this happen, until she works out that despite the huge public health problem caused by smoking, politicians don’t really care enough to rock the boat. They seem content to let the Geneva crowd sort it out. Being invisible to humans, she could stay, but can’t be bothered.

Our super-intelligent being reports back to Thaarg mission control who apologise for transporting her to some insignificant speck in the Milky Way. But Commander Prox asks, “Anything interesting to report?” “Nothing to see here” she yawns.