World Health Organization fails to put science at the core of public policy

3 min read

In a new report, the WHO misses crucial scientific research behind alternatives to smoking cigarettes.

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The World Health Organization released a report on global tobacco but failed to acknowledge the robust science and innovation behind alternatives to smoking cigarettes. 

The report, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies misses a critical scientific point: it is the burning of tobacco that produces the vast majority of the harmful chemicals that cause smoking-related diseases, not tobacco itself. Hundreds of millions of men and women who don’t quit stand to gain the most from better alternatives to cigarettes. In fact, a global survey of 31,000 people in 31 countries found that 88 percent of respondents think smokers should have access to less harmful alternatives to cigarettes.

PMI’s alternatives alone have already helped 8 million people abandon cigarettes entirely.

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Moira Gilchrist Op-Ed thumbnail

There is no question that the best choice is never to start using cigarettes or nicotine-containing products or if someone has, they should quit cigarette and nicotine altogether. By encouraging governments to double down on efforts to help men and women who smoke quit, the WHO takes an admirable stance. But the reality is that in any given year, about 9 out of 10 men and women who are already smoking will continue; in turn, their risk of smoking-related disease will continue to increase.

“The WHO is failing the one billion men and women around the world that continue to smoke by continuing to ignore the science behind better alternatives to cigarettes,” said Dr. Moira Gilchrist, Vice President of Strategic and Scientific Communications, Philip Morris International. “There is no question that scientifically-substantiated smoke-free alternatives are better than cigarettes. The WHO is perfectly situated to encourage independent research and provide science-based recommendations to smokers. Instead they seem to be closing down dialogue on promising alternatives to continued smoking, choosing instead to focus solely on pharmaceutical industry products.”

The WHO is failing the one billion men and women worldwide who continue to smoke by continuing to ignore the science behind better alternatives to cigarettes.
Dr. Moira Gilchrist, VP Strategic and Scientific Communications, PMI

In 1997, the UN Focal Point on Tobacco or Health recommended that “in order to assist smokers who are so heavily dependent that they cannot possibly stop smoking, every effort should be made to reduce the toxicity of existing tobacco products.”  The same report also recommends that “the WHO is requested to consider the above recommendations in future policy-development activities, including the drafting of a framework convention on tobacco control.”

PMI heeded the call for reduced toxicity products and for more than 20 years has been working on developing and scientifically assessing better alternatives to cigarettes that do not create smoke, because they do not combust. PMI’s scientific assessment program is inspired by the well-recognized practices of the pharmaceutical industry and in line with the draft guidance of the US FDA for Modified Risk Tobacco Product (MRTP) Applications. Our scientific studies resulted in more than 340 references in peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals and book chapters. All our clinical studies are registered on the public website www.ClinicalTrials.gov

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We encourage rigorous assessment of our scientific research, which is made transparently available for just that purpose. To date, there have been 73 independent studies and scientific reviews from universities and government research institutes in countries such as Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom. In general, the conclusions from these studies and reviews are in line with PMI’s own data.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director–General of the WHO, outlines in his own vision statement that, “under my leadership an enhanced and independent WHO will take a science-led and innovation-based approach that is results-oriented and responsive, maximizes inclusive partnerships, and ensures collective priority setting with all stakeholders.”

One has to ask, why does the WHO not apply these same principles to tobacco control?

“We remain committed to having an open and transparent dialogue based on science,” said Dr. Gilchrist. “We cannot change the past, but we can change the future for the one billion people around the world that continue to smoke.” 

Our smoke-free strategy complements efforts by the WHO to tackle smoking. Our aspiration is that, by 2025, at least 40 million people who would otherwise have smoked cigarettes will have switched to our smoke-free products (approximately 8 million people around the world have done this to date), reducing the number of smokers of PMI cigarette brands by a total of 55 million by 2025. Our aspiration is to reduce smoking almost four times faster than the target set by WHO.

“We are shifting our business towards science-based better alternatives. We look forward to working with decision-makers in governments around the world and organizations such as the WHO to accelerate this transformation,” said Dr. Gilchrist. “Despite the WHO report, we will remain steadfast in our commitment to unsmoke the world.”