The World Health Organization's transparency problem

October 18, 2016 10:10 AM

The Taxpayers Protection Alliance in America released a damning report last week looking at the World Health Organization's (WHO) sub-agency that monitors tobacco policy. The report found that it is "failing taxpayers around the world and harming its own effort to reduce tobacco use". Naturally, they found wasteful spending aplenty too - the agency spent $66,400 to host a vacation retreat for staff members and $50,000 to post updates to the agency’s social media accounts.

The WHO is due to hold a big conference in New Delhi, India next month, at which it will discuss a common approach to tobacco control and, it is thought, new innovations in that market. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance found in their report that the media and the public are often actively banned for the discussions at the COP conferences - concerning, when one considers the amount of taxpayers' money that goes towards funding it. These meetings - which routinely recommend higher taxes and more stringent regulations for products helping people to quit smoking - should surely be open to external experts or interested parties. Indeed, the WHO should actively encourage such scrutiny rather than proactively block it.

UK taxpayers contribute towards the WHO's budget, including payments made from the overseas aid budget. But the biggest success in tobacco control policy arguably comes from technological innovations developed by entrepreneurs, not by government handouts.

A recent report from the Adam Smith Institute laid bare the risk of government regulation preventing market based solutions to public health problems. Politicians should take note that if they want less tobacco consumption - innovators seem to be doing a good job of moving us in that direction. 

This is something seemingly borne out by the work of Public Health England (PHE), which has carried out a lot of research into the health benefits of new products. In its 2015 review the organisation found that "the current best estimate is that e-cigarettes are around 95 per cent less harmful than smoking". A report for the Royal College of Physicians in 2016 endorsed PHE’s findings and their was recent media coverage for a further study in the British Medical Journal - by authors at UCL and Cancer Research UK - seeming to show that new technology is helping people to kick the tobacco habit.

It's quite simple - if the goal is to encourage people to stop smoking tobacco, then we have to listen to the evidence. It is therefore shameful that the WHO will be closing the doors in New Delhi.

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