Medical staff are sterilised before entering the isolation unit at a hospital in Bundibugyo, western Uganda. Picture: AFP
Medical staff are sterilised before entering the isolation unit at a hospital in Bundibugyo, western Uganda. Picture: AFP

The UN’s World Health Organisation's (WHO's) core mandate is to be found in Article 23(f) of the Covenant of the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, which enjoined member states to “endeavour to take steps in matters of international concern for the prevention and control of disease”.

Today, however, the WHO is more concerned with enabling governments around the world to paternalistically control the lifestyle choices of their people. This diversion of attention has arguably caused the WHO to make monumental mistakes that place public health, especially in less developed regions, in grave danger.

In April, the WHO declared for the second time in as many years that the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) “does not constitute a public health emergency of international (cross-border) concern”. Two months later, however, it was confirmed that the disease has crossed the border into Uganda, a five-year-old boy being the first fatality.

Other examples of the WHO’s typically slow response to crises can be found in the 2009/2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, and an underreaction to the health problems in the wake of the civil war in Syria.

This has echoes of 2014, when WHO leadership failed to declare the Ebola outbreak in West Africa because they were instead focusing marketing resources on their anti-tobacco (and anti-vaping) conference in Moscow. It would take several months to formally acknowledge what turned out to be the largest outbreak in history.

Other examples of the WHO’s typically slow response to crises can be found in the 2009/2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, and an underreaction to the health problems in the wake of the civil war in Syria.

Of course, the WHO is not bound by the Covenant of the League of Nations anymore. It has its own constitution today, which lists a host of additional functions. If anything, it shows how the WHO has strayed from public health to the politics of control.

The WHO has developed unhealthy obsessions with regulating lifestyle choices at the expense of more serious health matters in the developing world. Among a host of other things (think red meat, roast potatoes and French fries), it has recommended to governments that vaping and e-cigarettes be strictly regulated, despite admitting that no credible evidence exists that vaping is nearly as harmful as smoking.

The preamble to the SA health department’s 2018 Tobacco Bill says that the “harmful effects of using electronic delivery systems [vapers, e-cigarettes, etc.] remain unknown” and that using these systems “may encourage the practice of smoking”. The socioeconomic impact assessment on the bill similarly acknowledges that no evidence has been found linking vaping to any real public health problem — just that it “may” be a problem.

It is rare for the government to acknowledge its ignorance, but it’s absurd for it to do so and at the same time enact sweeping regulations that it admits in its impact assessment will have a “significant” deleterious effect on this emerging industry. Not only for manufacturers of vaping devices, but for “importers, wholesalers and retailers” as well.

There is, of course, no mention in the assessment of SA’s nonexistent economic growth and astronomical unemployment rate, and how the proposed regulation will likely exacerbate this.

Truth about vaping?

The only clear reason the government gives in the assessment for why vaping should be regulated is because the WHO recommended it in a 2014 report. That same WHO report is largely nebulous in its conclusions: Vaping might be unhealthy, or it might be fine — who knows? Regulate it just to be safe and to “denormalise smoking”. Consumer choice be damned.

What, then, is the truth about vaping? Research shows that vaping correlates positively with attempts to quit smoking, and assists heavy smokers to smoke less. There is also the often-cited claim by Public Health England, hardly a shill group for Big Vape or Big Tobacco, that vaping is about 95% less harmful than smoking. And it has been shown that vaping does not lead to smoking.

Why is the WHO bringing its considerable resources and influence to bear upon something that amounts to nothing more than a relatively harmless lifestyle choice — vaping — but paying scant attention to real cases of disease outbreaks in the world’s most vulnerable regions?

The WHO has also been at the forefront of the tobacco plain packaging movement. Plain packaging not only undermines the freedom of choice of consumers, but also the property rights of producers and retailers.

By forcing, like the SA government seeks to do, all tobacco products to share similar branding, purchasing decisions will be motivated largely or exclusively by price rather than quality (according to Euromonitor). Consumers will no longer able to visually distinguish between products, which might result in switching to the cheapest products, including illegal tobacco.

Australia, the only country where long-term data exists on the effectiveness of plain packaging, recently held a public review on its tobacco control approach, which health experts and politicians admit is not working. Australia pioneered plain packaging in 2012, but its latest government data shows that the long-term decline in smoking rates has stalled, and illegal tobacco has reached a record 15% of the overall market.

If the WHO wishes to be a force for good, it should focus on preventing and stopping real public health crises, especially in the poorer and less developed parts of the world.

• Martin van Staden is a legal and policy analyst, author of  The Constitution and the Rule of Law.