Louis Houlbrooke: World Health Organisation could learn from NZ’s stance on vaping


This November, delegates from the Ministry of Health will attend the World Health Organisation’s biannual conference on tobacco control.

It’s tempting to say we shouldn’t bother with the thing.

The “Conference of the Parties”, or COP9, will update the edicts the WHO delivers to nations that it believes desperately need moral guidance in the war on tobacco.

For smaller and developing countries, proclamations from such a powerful body can sound like decrees from God. Here at the bottom of the world, our lawmakers have readily implemented the WHO’s suggested regulations against cigarettes and all those who would dare smoke them: plain packaging laws, smoking bans in public spaces and vehicles, and, most painfully for smokers, compounding increases to tobacco tax.

Few would question the case for a smoke-free future, but you would hope that a relatively sophisticated nation like ours could figure for itself how to get there.

Our Ministry of Health is flirting with a more independent approach. Annual tobacco tax hikes have been scrapped in light of mounting evidence of the policy’s calamitous impact on household budgets. The tax also contributes to violent robberies and a thriving black market – KPMG estimates that more than one in 10 cigarettes smoked in New Zealand are smuggled or homegrown.

The fact that the WHO has given us top marks in its policy scorecard for such a damaging tax undermines the body’s credibility.

At first glance, the WHO’s policy preferences reveal a single-minded focus on public health outcomes, economic consequences be damned. But even on basic public health questions, the WHO is driven by ideology.

The organisation is currently fixated on “threats posed by new nicotine and tobacco products” like e-cigarettes, pushing bans and strict regulations that ignore the role of vaping as an aid to quit smoking and ignore Public Health England’s widely-acknowledged finding that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than the hard stuff.

The WHO even gave an award to India’s Health Minister for banning e-cigarettes, a decision that denies 100 million smokers access to a potentially life-saving alternative to cigarettes.

Fortunately, on the question of vaping, New Zealand has again bucked the WHO orthodoxy. The Ministry of Health recognises that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking and even runs a “vape to quit” public information campaign targeted at smokers.

And it’s no wonder: a research paper published last week examines four relatively vape-friendly jurisdictions – New Zealand, the UK, France, and Canada – and has found that smoking cessation rates in those countries are twice as fast as the global average.

And despite well-aired concerns over youth experimentation with vaping products, available data suggests it is just that – experimentation. There is no significant rate of daily usage among school kids, and even less evidence of any “gateway effect” toward combustible cigarettes.

New Zealand’s new restrictions on vape flavours, advertising and nicotine strength will impede some smokers from making the switch, but on balance our Ministry of Health should be proud to oversee a regime that allows smokers to evade death and taxes with less harmful, more affordable products.

So, no – New Zealand should not boycott the WHO’s talkfest. Our delegates should attend and tell New Zealand’s story with pride. And if the WHO refuses to budge on its paranoid stance, other countries can look to us as a rebellious example to follow.

• Louis Houlbrooke is the campaigns manager of the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and is a vaper. He has contributed a case study on New Zealand to a new paper on international best practices toward vaping.

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