Philippines’ Vape Law spurs calls for WHO to review restrictive tobacco control policy


While the Philippines’ landmark “Vape Law” supported tobacco harm reduction as one of the pillars for tobacco control approaches identified in the World Health Organization global treaty, the WHO remains dismissive of the principle, pushing its prohibitionist stance.

“The Vape Law reflects the government’s position that innovative smoke-free products, proven by scientific research to be far less harmful than traditional cigarettes, should be regulated as options for smokers who wouldn’t quit otherwise,” said Dr. Lorenzo Mata, president of Quit For Good, a non-profit organization promoting harm reduction to mitigate the damage caused by cigarettes.

The law, officially known as Republic Act No. 11900 or the Vaporized Nicotine and Non-Nicotine Products Act of 2022, regulates novel tobacco products like heated tobacco, oral nicotine and vapes, widely viewed as significantly less harmful than smoking. Countries like the UK, New Zealand and Japan have already adopted these products as tools to demonstrably reduce smoking’s devastating impact.

“The Vape Law acknowledges the need for less harmful alternatives for smokers, and Congress, by passing this law, has shown its support for science-based public health policy,” said Dr. Mata.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, a supporter of the “Vape Bill” before its enactment, underscored the crucial need to provide Filipino smokers with alternatives to combustible cigarettes, stating, “We’re offering them a better life.” This sentiment resonates with international experts.

Professor David Sweanor, chair of the advisory board at the University of Ottawa’s Center for Health Law, Policy and Ethics, sees the Philippines’ move as a potential catalyst for a “public health revolution,” while renowned researcher Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos applauds the “achievement in such a difficult region.”

This regional influence is further noted by Dr. Alexander Wodak, who said that, while other Asian countries are moving towards harm reduction, “none are as far advanced as the Philippines.” He expressed hope that this will “accelerate the move to tobacco harm reduction throughout the region.”

Roberto A Sussman, an associate professor at Mexico’s National University, also described the Vape Law as a “ground-breaking event” with wide-ranging influence.

Harm reduction is not a novel concept, but is one of the three pillars of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), alongside demand and supply reduction.

Dr. Mata, however, criticized the inconsistency between the FCTC and the WHO’s current stance, which he sees as dismissive of harm reduction’s potential.

He cited the need to align the Philippines’ FCTC position with the Vape Law, especially considering the growing global acceptance and promotion of tobacco harm reduction.

He cited examples like the UK, where annual reviews by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities demonstrate the reduced risks associated with novel tobacco products compared to smoking.

Dr. Mata, along with other experts, urged the WHO FCTC to incorporate harm reduction principles, allowing smokers access to safer alternatives. At the same time, he criticized the WHO for seemingly neglecting Article 1(d) of the FCTC preamble, which explicitly mentions “harm reduction strategies” as a crucial pillar of tobacco control.

With representatives from WHO-signatory countries set to convene in Panama for the 10th Conference of the Parties this year, where “novel and emerging tobacco and nicotine products” will be a major topic, the Philippines’ Vape Law has injected momentum into the harm reduction conversation.

The law’s impact is already tangible in the Philippines, with over a million former smokers transitioning to smoke-free products to reduce their exposure to harmful smoke.

Dr. Mata, drawing on his 40 years of medical experience, underscored the need for such alternatives: “For smokers stuck with the deadliest product in the market, less harmful options offer a pragmatic lifeline.”

“I have been a doctor for over 40 years, and I know how difficult it is for smokers when they have no alternatives that are less harmful. They get stuck with the deadliest product in the market,” he said. “After conducting studies ourselves, we were convinced that the use of vaporized nicotine and non-nicotine products was definitely less harmful [than smoking combustible cigarettes] and could be considered a pragmatic middle ground to which we should bring our current adult cigarette smokers.”

The Philippines’ Vape Law, backed by robust scientific evidence and international support, marks a significant step towards a more nuanced and potentially life-saving approach to tobacco control.

Supporters of the law are convinced that vaporized nicotine and non-nicotine products (VNNPs) and novel tobacco products should be regulated and taxed differently from cigarettes to encourage adult smokers to switch to these products.

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