The World Health Organisation and tobacco warnings

by Benjamin Elks, operations manager


The World Health Organisation seems to be compensating for recent failings over COVID-19 by focusing on inconsequential, trivial issues, much like an overzealous parent. In the current climate of increasing tobacco restrictions, some may not be surprised to learn that the WHO is advocating for warnings in films and TV during scenes which feature tobacco products. But is this the right call? And what does it mean for our autonomy as a nation? 


This law has been in use in India since 2011. Anti-tobacco messages are shown in all films that depict tobacco use, as well as anti-tobacco health warnings when tobacco actively features. In many cases, it is not even the primary character smoking and often draws attention to the act. At best, the evidence is inconclusive that these warnings even work. A study conducted in 2019 found that anti-tobacco warnings in films did not have a significant impact on the intention to smoke among young people. Furthermore, the effectiveness of anti-tobacco warnings in films may be dependent on the type of warning used. A 2015 study found that text warnings in films were less effective than graphic warnings in reducing smoking intentions among young people. 


Yet the WHO is using its bureaucratic might to advocate for a policy that might not even achieve the outcomes it aims to achieve, while damaging the experience of those just trying to watch a film. The UK is the third highest contributor to the WHO, as our Global Quangos Uncovered Factbook recently uncovered. Is this really what taxpayers want to be funding?


It does not end there. The WHO, in conjunction with the EU, is suggesting further measures. They are calling for a ratings system which takes tobacco depictions into account. This could mean that classic shows, like 101 Dalmatians, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and even Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, could be deemed inappropriate for children. Perhaps the Director General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, can play the Queen of Hearts in a future remake of Alice in Wonderland, given his censorious and autocratic tendencies.


Whether well-intentioned or not, the WHO should be focusing on major global health issues that cross borders, such as pandemics, and not get involved in nanny state policing of domestic policy. These are unelected bodies, with little to no accountability to those that fund them. It is one thing for a government to implement a policy it’s been explicitly elected to enact, no matter how mad the policy may be. But this should be the consequence of a democratic mandate, not because of pressure from global bureaucrats.    


Considering the UK’s substantial contributions to the WHO we should expect to see more meaningful contributions to solving genuine international health crises, not an additional voice chiming in on a niche domestic policy. 

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