“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”.

Almost 70 years after these words were adopted in the Constitution of the World Health Organization, they are more powerful and relevant than ever.

Since day one, the right to health has been central to WHO’s identity and mandate. It is at the heart of my top priority: universal health coverage.

The right to health for all people means that everyone should have access to the health services they need, when and where they need them, without suffering financial hardship.

No one should get sick and die just because they are poor, or because they cannot access the health services they need.

Good health is also clearly determined by other basic human rights including access to safe drinking water and sanitation, nutritious foods, adequate housing, education and safe working conditions.

The right to health also means that everyone should be entitled to control their own health and body, including having access to sexual and reproductive information and services, free from violence and discrimination…

That’s why WHO promotes the idea of people-centred care; it is the embodiment of human rights in the practice of care.

When people are marginalized or face stigma or discrimination, their physical and mental health suffers. Discrimination in health care is unacceptable and is a major barrier to development.

But when people are given the opportunity to be active participants in their own care, instead of passive recipients, their human rights respected, the outcomes are better and health systems become more efficient.

We have a long way to go until everyone – no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they have – has access to these basic human rights.

The central principle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to ensure that no one is left behind.

I call on all countries to respect and protect human rights in health – in their laws, their health policies and programmes. We must all work together to combat inequalities and discriminatory practices so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of good health, no matter their age, sex, race, religion, health status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or migration status.

Fine words…if only. Because when it comes to a billion smokers, no small ‘marginalised’ group, fine words seem to fly out the window to be replaced by a messianic, ill-judged jihad against nicotine.

Flash forward exactly two years later to 10th of December 2019 (did I mention that’s my birthday?) to the Philippines, a country with a novel approach to drug harm reduction by killing people. Standing before the Senate Hearing on E-Cigarettes was one Ranti Fayokun from the WHO HQ Department of Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases. Across a 57-slide presentation she claimed e-cigarettes contain toxic and carcinogenic chemicals and metals, affect the developing brain, have caused EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury) since 2012, and lead to cannabis use. And in a particularly egregious example of deliberate miscommunication, she showed a fake slide (essentially a meme) purporting to show that companies have been targeting children. The WHO official was called out on this in the session, but insisted it was real.

According to those in the room, Fayokun tried to avoid giving any clear answers about the relative risk of vaping products or any potential benefit under any circumstance. She made much of the “confusing science” around both the lower risk of vaping products and their value in helping smokers to quit, when of course much of the confusion is manufactured anti-science specifically constructed to cause this very confusion. 

She would not answer the point that the WHO’s own International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) website, states explicitly:

“Use of the e-cigarette does not involve burning of tobacco and inhalation of tobacco smoke as occurs in cigarette smoking; therefore the use of e-cigarettes is expected to have a lower risk of disease and death than tobacco smoking. Introducing appropriate regulations will minimize any potential risks from e-cigarette use”.

“E-cigarettes have the potential to reduce the enormous burden of disease and death caused by tobacco smoking if most smokers switch to e-cigarettes and public health concerns are properly addressed”.

Most shocking of all, was an assertion by a panellist that this official declared the “WHO doesn’t care about smokers”. No doubt there would be a claim that the quote was ‘taken out of context’, but the sentiment very much plays to the WHO’s enduring narrative that the only option for smokers is quit or die. Due to the  organisation’s implacable objection to tobacco harm reduction through the use of safer nicotine products – there can be no other conclusion – and presentations like this continue to reinforce that shameful position, leading one to conclude also that, at least in this arena, the WHO is not fit for purpose.

And in an ominous overture to the November meeting of the signatories to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Fayokun stated that for those (many) countries unable to implement the WHO’s tobacco control strategy and properly review the THR evidence, the best bet to save time and money would be just to ban vaping and heated tobacco products, as ‘banning is a form of regulation’.

The only good news is that many of the Philippine politicians in the room were not convinced by what they heard and took her to task on what was blatant THR bias. As one source remarked, “She went down in flames”. Plenty of fire and smoke there then.

And more good news is that on Thursday 23rd of January, KAC is launching the Tobacco Harm Reduction – The Right to Health briefing in London. Welcome to 2020 when, in true Game of Thrones style, the fire-breathing dragons of tobacco harm reduction will lay waste to the lies and propaganda of all those who deny smokers the right to health. Bring it on!