Tuesday 31 May 2016

The state of the World Health Organisation

There were more allegations of incompetence and corruption directed at the World Health Organisation over the weekend. After dropping the ball on Ebola and making a few people very rich with swine flu fear-mongering, the WHO are now accused of turning a blind eye to the Zika virus for fear of spoiling the International Olympic Committee's party.

An open letter signed by 150 international doctors, scientists and researchers criticised a secret agreement between the WHO and the IOC and said they​ risk putting public health in further danger.

It says the influx of hundreds of athletes and thousands of spectators into Brazil will accelerate the march of the virus.

.. One of the letter’s signatories, Professor Edwin van Teijlingen , an expert in reproductive health at Bournemouth University, accused the IOC and the WHO of being “too close for comfort” and of operating behind a cloak of secrecy.

The cloak of secrecy sounds familiar. At the peak of the Ebola crisis, WHO director-general Margaret Chan was 'fully occupied' at a tobacco control jamboree in Moscow to which even journalists were not invited. Chan seems to have little interest in infectious diseases in developing countries. She prefers to spend her time micromanaging the lives of affluent Westerners, suppressing e-cigarettes and waging war on the paper tigers of capitalism. Her sixth form view of the world was captured in the 2013 speech in which she said...

'It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol.'

 And so it continues. Today is World No Tobacco Day...

Every year, on 31 May, WHO and partners mark World No Tobacco Day (WNTD), highlighting the health risks associated with tobacco use and advocating for effective policies to reduce tobacco consumption.

And what 'effective policy' is the WHO 'advocating for' on this year?

For World No Tobacco Day, 31 May 2016, WHO and the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are calling countries to get ready for plain (standardized) packaging of tobacco products.

That's right, a policy that clearly failed in Australia and has unwelcome side effects not only in terms of the black market but also in terms of the effect on smokers...

Some may argue that the fact that the images create motivations and desires to stop smoking is a public health victory in its own right. If it wasn’t for the unintended consequences, I would agree. But “plain packaging” has been found to create severe feelings of self-blame and disgust which, in turn, cause stigmatisation of smokers.

On the one hand, these side effects are not justified because they are not outweighed by other benefits of the new plain packaging rules. The fact that smokers feel motivated to stop is hardly a net gain when they at the same time are subject to emotional harm, and their chances of quitting aren’t strongly improved.

Worse, though, some studies demonstrate that certain groups of smokers react negatively to shock messages. For some, the feeling of blame and stigmatisation creates an emotional state of disempowerment, which reinforces the belief that it is impossible to stop smoking. In such cases, plain packaging does not only create emotional harm without sufficient justification, it is quite frankly counterproductive.

Given the lack of behavioural evidence and the serious unintended consequences, the introduction of tobacco plain packaging in the UK is an ill-advised decision, which is most likely not to have a significant impact on one of our biggest public health challenges.

None of the unintended consequences matter to the unelected and unaccountable WHO. They won't have to pick up the pieces. But governments should be asking why they are funding an organisation that so often fails in its primary duty of tackling contagious diseases in poor countries and yet always has ample money to spend on quixotic pursuits such as the global erosion of intellectual property rights.

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