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Farmers’ livelihood hang in the balance as WHO conference delegates debate future of tobacco industry

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PANAMA CITY—The livelihoods of millions of farmers worldwide, including those in the Philippines, hang in the balance as the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) convened its 10th Conference of the Parties (COP) to deliberate on policies that could shape the future of the tobacco industry.

Delegates from 183 countries, each with diverse interests, are participating in COP 10 at the Panama Convention Center, organized by the WHO FCTC, an international treaty enacted in 2005. Tobacco farmers fear that their exclusion from these discussions could result in the demise of their primary source of income.

Among them is Harmadio Martinez, who joined a protest rally 300 meters from the venue of the COP 10 to demand fairness from the WHO and the Panamanian government which proposed to ban tobacco products, including novel and emerging alternatives deemed less harmful than combustible cigarettes.

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Martinez and his family have engaged in tobacco farming for the past 250 years, exporting tobacco leaves to Honduras. He implored the Panamanian government and the WHO to consider the welfare of tobacco farmers and their families and to provide viable alternatives.

Lacking representation in parliament, farmers are seeking government assistance in education, food, and other basic needs, as well as alternative livelihoods if COP delegates advocate for a ban on new tobacco products based on arguments deemed "flawed" and lacking scientific basis by other public health experts.

Martin Cullip, an international fellow at The Taxpayers Protection Alliance's Consumer Center in the United Kingdom, particularly criticized the WHO's classification of aerosols in its 9th Report on the Tobacco Epidemic, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which asserts that "aerosols commonly emitted by [heated tobacco products] do fall under the definition of tobacco smoke."

“The WHO should be truthful about science,” said Cullip.

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Dr. Roberto A. Sussman, an associate professor at Mexico's National University, also lambasted the WHO for politicizing the redefinition of smoke. He said the WHO report lacks scientific evidence, and that cigarette alternatives like vapes and heated tobacco are smoke-free.

Delegates to the COP are discussing the regulation of novel and emerging tobacco products, including vapes, e-cigarettes, heated tobacco, oral nicotine, and other smoke-free alternatives, considered by tobacco harm reduction (THR) experts as crucial in ending the global smoking epidemic affecting 1.3 billion people.

Countries like the Philippines have passed laws regulating these products, while the UK, Japan, and Sweden have seen smoking rates decline after allowing their introduction.

Dr. Sussman, however, noted the strong resistance from the WHO and its allies to smoke-free alternatives. "But how come consumption still goes on?" he asked. "It is because millions of consumers are enjoying the products and quitting smoking."

"This is what will save the day—the consumers. Vapes and heated tobacco products are more widespread and are only 10 percent to 15 percent as dangerous as described. There is a global experiment happening, and hard evidence will prevail," he said.

“I would say most of them are quitting smoking or smoking much less. And they are not getting sick,” said Dr. Sussman to illustrate the difference between aerosols produced by heated tobacco and smoke generated by conventional cigarettes.

“Detractors may say that's an anecdote, doesn't count. Well, I can say, no, it's not an anecdote. I can support that with my own work. And it is open, it is public, and it can be checked, verified,” said Dr. Sussman.

The five-day conference will cover topics such as the regulation of contents and disclosure of tobacco products, tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, novel and emerging tobacco products (e-cigarettes), and forward-looking tobacco control measures.

Deputy Executive Secretary Hubert Dominic Guevarra, head of the Philippine delegation, reported notable progress in implementing the FCTC, including the passage of the Vaporized Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Products Regulation Act (Republic Act 11900).

Guevarra hailed it as landmark legislation aiming to reduce harm caused by smoking, establishing a comprehensive regulatory framework for vaporized nicotine and non-nicotine products, and other novel tobacco products.

Tobacco harm reduction advocates like Dr. Sussman and Cullip are calling on the WHO FCTC to explore science-based innovations, such as harm reduction strategies, to address the global smoking epidemic affecting 1.3 billion globally and provide them options that present far less harm.


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