Scientists Urge WHO to Adapt Harm Reduction  


Scientists Speak Out on the Need for the WHO to Support Tobacco Harm Reduction Products


On the 18th of October, 100 specialists in nicotine science, policy and practice called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to modernize its approach to tobacco policy by adopting the harm reduction perspective. The letter, which is written ahead of the Conference of Parties (COP) gathering of the countries that belong to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), strongly criticizes the WHOs hostile stance against harm reduction and outlines how the perspective could provide great opportunities for public health. Among the signatories is the former director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK), Clive Bates, who first published the letter on his website.


Scientist’s Recommendations for the WHO

The letter lists six recommendations for the WHO:

·  Make tobacco harm reduction a component to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for health;

·  Make safer nicotine alternatives accessible for smokers, including adolescents and potential users;

·  Require policy proposals, particularly prohibitions, to reflect the risk of unintended consequences;

·  Properly address malpractice by the tobacco industry, without forming a barrier to risk-reduced products;

·  Give harm-reduction proponents, like consumer advocates and public health experts, a voice in negotiations; and

·  Create an independent review of WHO’s approach to tobacco policy.


The Importance of Flavors

The scientists also highlight the importance of flavored nicotine and tobacco products. A growing body of evidence shows that flavor plays a critical role in attracting and retaining smokers into the category of less harmful products, and that flavor bans may increase cigarette smoking.


Our consumer data shows that fruity flavors are most popular among former smokers. It’s a paradox that authorities that work towards a smoke free world, ban all real alternatives and force former smokers to use tobacco flavors, which undermines the use of alternative products.



The FCTC was adopted by the WHO in 2003 and now covers 182 countries. Even though several public health agencies have stated that e-cigarettes and other oral nicotine products are significantly less harmful than smoking, the WHO has been dismissive of the potential to transform consumers from smoking to low-risk products. From the agency’s perspective, there is no evidence-based difference between traditional cigarettes and e-cigarettes.


The letter points out that the WHO’s definition of “tobacco control” includes implementing harm reduction into its policy. The scientists consider that the agency is rejecting a public health strategy that could avoid millions of smoking-related deaths. In light of this, they urge parties to the FCTC to encourage WHO to support the inclusion of harm reduction into the framework. 


The Conference of Parties (COP) takes place every two years and in 2021 will be held in early November – tobacco harm reduction is not, however, on the provisional agenda.


Read the full letter here.