Tuesday 30 August 2016

A letter to the WHO

The WHO is having a consultation on what policy demands to put in the latest version of its delusional non-communicable disease action plan. I've just been reading the consultation document and was staggered to find (though I shouldn't be by now) that it is a wishlist of every juvenile anti-consumer nanny state policy you can shake a stick at.

The WHO is the FIFA of health so I very much doubt that any responses to their consultation will make them change their mind about anything but they are taking submissions (at appendix3@who.int) until close of play tomorrow so I decided to send them a quick e-mail anyway.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I have read your suggestions for Appendix 3 of the WHO Global NCD Action Plan and regret to see the WHO involving itself in policy areas in which it has insufficient knowledge and little authority. Is the WHO now merely a wing of the anti-capitalist movement?

In particular, I note the emphasis on banning intellectual property and branding (plain packaging), taxing sugary drinks and banning alcohol advertising. None of these policies have been shown to effectively tackle the associated problems but all have a detrimental effect on the operation of free markets. You may have no affection for markets - indeed, it is increasingly clear from the rhetoric of Margaret Chan that you do not - but many of us do. That is why some of the measures you want to recommend are unconstitutional or otherwise illegal. Why ask countries to do things that they cannot do, should not do and do not want to do? The public expects the WHO to be more than a glorified single issue pressure group.

There is zero evidence that plain packaging had any effect on tobacco sales in Australia, unless you count the unusual rise in sales observed in the first year of the policy as a direct effect of the legislation. There is zero evidence from anywhere in the world that taxes on sugary drinks have had the slightest effect on obesity. You asked Gerard Hastings to review the evidence on alcohol advertising and he told you that it was a driver of consumption. Hastings is well known to be an emotional and fanatical opponent of capitalism in general and advertising in particular. It is hard to think of anyone less qualified to give a sober judgement to an UN agency. Needless to say, his jaundiced view of alcohol advertising is not supported by economic studies.

I notice you also suggest bans on smoking outdoors. Again, there is not the slightest evidence that secondhand smoke outdoors poses a threat to anybody. Even if there were, it would not be any business of the WHO’s to tell people how to deal with it.

Finally, there is the question of resources. The WHO’s resources are limited and contagious diseases remain rampant in most parts of the world. A dollar spent campaigning for anti-market policies such as plain packaging and alcohol advertising bans is a dollar that could be spent preventing typhoid, cholera, HIV etc. NCDs kill people but it would take a moral cretin to view a death in old age from a lifestyle-related condition to be equivalent to a child dying of a communicable disease, not least because the former has consented to the risk and is not asking for your help. Until the latter have been adequately tackled, it is immoral to expend resources on the former.

The hard-working people who pay your wages expect you to be dealing with problems such as Zika and Ebola, not beer advertisements and the price of cola. If the WHO wishes to retain the good will it has attracted over decades of tackling infectious disease, it needs to drop the juvenile political campaigning and reform itself quickly.


Christopher Snowdon

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