WHO Document Relies on Half-Truths, Omissions

Published July 1, 2006

In recognition of World No Tobacco Day, May 31, 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a lengthy document titled “Tobacco: Deadly in Any Form or Disguise.”

The publication misleads at least as much as it informs, and distorting the health risks of various modes of tobacco usage may cause more harm than it prevents.

Risks Depend on Use

To understand the WHO disinformation campaign on tobacco, one has to know and accept the fact that tobacco products are not always inherently dangerous to health. The dangers of tobacco are directly related to how the product is used and how often.

Generally speaking, before cigarettes were introduced (which happened mainly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, with a huge surge in use after WWI), tobacco was used in a relatively safe manner. With pipes, cigars, and “chew,” the health risks were real but in most cases small. Certainly there were exceptions (yes, the premature death of President Ulysses Grant was directly attributable to his habitual use of cigars), but in most cases tobacco in the pre-cigarette days did not cause substantial morbidity and mortality and it rarely caused systemic diseases such as lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease.

The fact that portable matches were not widely available until early in the twentieth century limited the use of pipes and cigars, which were most likely lit by fires and candles after dinner.

Use Increased Rapidly

The cigarette and pocket matches changed all of that. Cigarettes could be smoked during all waking hours and their fumes were inhaled, dramatically increasing the risk of systemic diseases in the lungs, cardiovascular system, and beyond.

For WHO to prepare a purportedly educational document stating that all tobacco is harmful in any form without mentioning dose (frequency of use) and form (cigarettes versus other forms of tobacco) is irresponsible and outrageous.

The publication blatantly tells occasional cigar and pipe users that any use of this product puts them at risk of lung and oral cancers. Surely, if one smokes cigars in the same way as one does cigarettes–’round the clock, regularly inhaling–one assumes the same risks as a cigarette smoker. But smoking a celebratory cigar or occasionally smoking a pipe pose very little health risk. WHO never states that truth.

Smokeless Tobacco Reduces Harm

Similarly, WHO condemns all forms of smokeless tobacco, lamenting that this product is used widely in Scandinavia and increasingly in the United States. What the health agency did not reveal is that the use of smokeless tobacco in Sweden and other countries as a form of harm reduction for addicted cigarette smokers has led to a precipitous decline in lung cancer in those nations.

WHO omits data showing that encouraging a switch from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco can save countless lives among those who are addicted to smoking and have not been able to quit through other approaches. WHO rejecting smokeless tobacco as a means of harm reduction is saying to the smoker: Quit or die–you have no alternative.

Trace Chemicals Overhyped

The document is shameless in other ways as well. For example, seeking to terrify people about cigarettes, the agency reproduces an Australian anti-smoking ad blaring the message that there are toxic chemicals in cigarettes, citing specifically DDT, ammonia (which they helpfully remind us is a floor cleaner), acetone (“a paint stripper”), methanol (“rocket fuel”), and arsenic (“white ant poison”).

This is outrageous. It is not the mere presence of the trace levels of chemicals that make cigarettes deadly–it is the lighting, burning, and inhalation that wreak havoc with health.

Why WHO felt compelled to use baseless hype to scare us is a mystery, given that there is already overwhelming and irrefutable evidence from countless epidemiological studies confirming the unprecedented health hazards of cigarette smoking.

WHO threatens the credibility of the whole public health profession. Physicians and scientists who know better should demand that WHO correct the record and emphasize the unique and spectacular dangers of cigarette smoking and the much less significant risks of other forms of tobacco use, presenting risks on a spectrum from negligible to severe.

The best way to lose an argument is to overstate it. And by telling consumers there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco, WHO has indeed lost its argument.

Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan ([email protected]) is president of the American Council on Science and Health. This article first appeared May 31, 2006, on the IntellectualConservative.com Web site and is reprinted with permission.

For more information …

Tobacco: Deadly in Any Form or Disguise, World Health Organization, May 2006, http://www.who.int/tobacco/communications/events/wntd/2006/Tfi_Rapport.pdf.