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Checking in on Michael Bloomberg’s multi-million dollar global crusade against harm reduction

For years, we’ve covered the extent of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s multi-million dollar campaigns to try to shape the lives of ordinary consumers.

What began as an erstwhile nanny state campaign on Big Gulps in New York City has ballooned into a massively funded operation that uses grants and NGO funding on many tobacco issues, mostly on outlawing nicotine alternatives like vaping products.

In 2019, Bloomberg pledged $160 million to get US states and localities to ban flavored vaping products, mostly funneled to anti-tobacco groups who’ve pivoted from “stop smoking” campaigns to “stop consuming nicotine in all forms.”

Those efforts quickly scaled to the level of the World Health Organization, including funding US anti-tobacco groups in the millions to even go so far to completely outlaw nicotine alternatives in developing countries across Latin America, Asia, and more. While nations on these continents typically have larger smoking populations than in the US and Europe, they have thus far been deprived of the life-saving nicotine alternatives that would serve as a less harmful switch away from smoking.

In the name of “halting tobacco,” Bloomberg and the organizations he funds have actively sought to poison the well of tobacco harm reduction by miscasting vaping products as “just as bad” as combustible tobacco. Even though health agencies in nations such as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and even Canada actively recommend vaping products to get smokers to quit, this option is kept off the table in developing nations where Bloomberg has influence.

In February of this year, Bloomberg’s commitment to severely restrict harm reduction increased significantly to nearly $420 million, hoping to drive a larger global campaign in 110 countries around the world to cut off citizens from nicotine alternatives that are less harmful.

Over $280 million of that money will focus on developing countries, offering grants to political groups, health agencies, and politicians to implement a zero-tolerance nicotine agenda.

The issue with Bloomberg’s approach, and by extension the dozens of health and anti-tobacco groups he funds, is their denial of the real scientific evidence on tobacco harm reduction.

Rather than endorse the market-derived alternatives that have been successful in getting adult smokers to quit – much more effectively than government education programs – they have created a false equivalence between the vape and the cigarette.

That not only harms public health, but continues to fester a narrative of misinformation that has captured many public health researchers and government agencies. We know this all too well from our cross-national survey of health practitioners in Europe, in which many doctors were simply unaware of the growing category of less harmful nicotine alternatives like vaping, heat-not-burn sticks, nicotine pouches, and more.

As Bloomberg continues his global crusade against harm reduction, and many groups pick up his baton to carry out policies to deny safer options to smokers who need them in developing countries, researchers and activists must continue to underscore the need for options and consumer choice when it comes to nicotine alternatives.

Consumers, political leaders, and community activists must uphold the both scientific and anecdotal evidence provided by the consumer-led revolution in harm reduction. Only then can we continue to save lives, influence better policy, and ensure a generation of people who will have more options to live their lives, not less.

Can you sue the ski hut where you contracted coronavirus?

European nations may be opening up their economies throughout the month of May, but that grand opening is likely to be dogged by the wave of COVID-19-related lawsuits.

We learned over the weekend that over 5,000 international tourists to the ski town of Ischgl, Austria are in the process of filing a lawsuit against the town and public officials. There are also being considered against ski resort owners in the area.

The lawsuit is being prepared by the Austrian Consumer Protection Association, which claims health authorities and the bar owners were “negligent” in not shutting down ski huts and restaurants earlier. They launched a website asking potential plaintiffs to share their information in order to join a future class-action lawsuit.

Often described as the “Ibiza of the Alps,” Ischgl made international headlines as an epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. At one particular venue, Kitzloch, a German bartender reportedly tested positive for coronavirus on March 7th. The bar closed its doors two days later. The town went into lockdown on March 13th. Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter then issued a province-wide quarantine on March 18th.

By the end of March, nearly 1,000 cases across Europe could be traced back to the resort town, and as many of 1,500 to the region itself.

The complaint states that the delay from the first known case until the ski town was ordered into lockdown was “negligible” and that authorities should have “known of a threat of mass infection”. Some have even blamed “greed” and “toxic business” as the reason local officials and business owners waited before shuttering doors. But as covered above, ski lodges and restaurants shut before provincial and national lockdowns ordered them to.

The first death in Austria from the coronavirus wasn’t until March 12, after which the town of Ischgl went into complete lockdown. The national lockdown went into effect four days later.

Is this enough to make a case against ski huts and villages where tourists contracted coronavirus?

As my colleague Linda Kavuka has pointed out, the current pandemic is a living and breathing example of Force Majeure, an Act of God that indemnifies certain parties in lawsuits and breaches of contract because it is simply “beyond the control” of any person or organization.

That said, there are legitimate questions to be asked: should ski towns have shuttered their doors and closed down bars and restaurants earlier? Likely. But we simply didn’t have the same information then as we do now.

And considering the very disturbing revelations about obfuscation of information by both the Chinese Communist Party and the World Health Organization at the outset of this crisis, it’s hard to place blame solely at the feet of local mayors and ski hut owners in the Alps.

(That’s why the U.S. states of Mississippi and Missouri have filed lawsuits against China.)

Of course, the fact that any skier or holiday goer would contract the coronavirus at a place where they were supposed to be enjoying themselves is a tragedy. Many people unknowingly spread the virus, were hospitalized themselves and died as a result. No one can excuse that loss of life and the grief that ensues.

But what we must hold uphold, in this situation and many more to come, is the facts and cases we allow to enter our legal system and our courts.

Classifying or assigning claims of negligence in the pandemic could likely mean thousands of unwitting public officials, business owners, and individuals will be held liable for what they didn’t know at the time. That would be a dangerous precedent.

We’ve often covered the incredibly litigious culture in the United States’ tort law system and articulated to reasons to reform it. Now, it seems, we’ll have to spread that same message throughout the European continent.

The EU’s war on harm reduction is in full swing

In 2020, the Netherlands will host the ninth conference of parties of the so-called WHO-FCTC treaty. During this conference, world leaders and public health advocates discuss the ways in which smoking prevalence can be curbed.

However, these same advocates haven’t just made their policies about actual tobacco, but also about vapour: innovative e-cigarette products come under fire, even though they are provenly less harmful and help those smokers who desire to quit. EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis and the anti-tobacco European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) are leading the charge in this fight.

In 2015, Public Health England reported that an independent review found that vaping is at least 95 per cent safer than conventional smoking. PHE confirmed this assessment in December last year.

As a result, the UK has made tobacco harm reduction a centrepiece of its policies to reduce the smoking rate, as opposed to calls for direct cessation, which are less effective.

This is also backed by current evidence: a study funded by the National Institute for Health Research UK, titled “A Randomized Trial of E-Cigarettes versus Nicotine-Replacement Therapy” in the New England Journal of Medicine, analysed the behaviour of almost 900 randomised smokers. The conclusion: e-cigarettes were more effective for smoking cessation than nicotine replacement therapy.

A public consultation by the Health Information and Quality Authority in Ireland found that e-cigarettes are used by a third of smokers as cessation tools, and are twice as effective as a placebo.

In an interview with Euractiv, EU health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said the exact opposite, claiming that nicotine replacement therapy was the better alternative. Andriukaitis also defended his head of cabinet, who had come under fire for calling e-cigarettes poison. The most telling quote from the Lithuanian commissioner is this one: “My question to the industry is the following: is it harmful or not to smoke? Does it cause cancer or not? Harm is harm. No matter if it’s less or more.”

That statement should make one think: here’s a European commissioner who does not believe in different degrees of harm. By that standard, we could also equate the harmfulness of eating red meat with smoking cigarettes. Both can cause cancer – and who really cares about the degree of harm caused by one or the other?

This lobby against harm reduction is coordinated by organisations such as the ENSP, which is funded by the Health and Consumer Programmes 2014-2020 of the European Union. This means that the European commissioner funds an NGO that invites the commissioner to events and features him in news articles funded by the same NGO.

It looks as if the European commission has broad support for their positions, but in reality, they are using claqueurs, which is nothing short of deception.

Andriukaitis and the ENSP are trying to change the narrative on anti-tobacco policy by framing it as a human right, and by making false statements about the science surrounding harm reduction.

In fact, their approach to anti-tobacco policy is an almost religious “if there is smoke, there must be harm”. They push policies that restrict not only consumer choice but also access to products that help those who choose to quit with innovate new solutions.

As the scientific evidence in favour of harm reduction is growing by the day, the European commission is stubbornly defending its anti-scientific approach to smoking cessation.

Yes, consumers should be able to quit smoking in a way they see fit, and that suits their needs. Restricting innovation for the sake of increasing your bucket list of “things to ban next” is not only nonsensical, it’s bad for people’s health.

The European commission should instead follow the British National Health Service’s approach to smoking cessation.

Read more here

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