WHO responds to criticism over e-cigarettes with attempted censorship

by Carl V Phillips

My previous post should have sat at the top of the page for the rest of the day, or two, because it is important (so please read it), but this is breaking news that I wanted to report on.

As many readers know, the World Health Organization (WHO) came out this week with an attack on e-cigarettes which presages them trying to pressure governments into acting against e-cigarettes. CASAA has not tried to address this in detail because (a) most of what we would have to say is generic observations of how many of the claims are wrong and proposed policies are bad, and we have already done that in other contexts, and (b) it seemed a reasonable division of labor to leave this to European supporters of tobacco harm reduction because we had to deal with the CDC and FDA this week. One of the Europeans who took on the WHO was Clive Bates, including with these posts. In response to Bates’s challenge to them, WHO did not pause to consider that they might be wrong and doing harm, nor did they try to defend themselves substantively. Instead, they threatened legal action against Bates.

Bates’s position, shared by many, is that with this document and associated public statements, WHO is denigrating and spreading misinformation about e-cigarettes, which will tend to scare smokers away from using them to quit smoking and cause smokers who have quit to return to smoking. In addition, the government policies endorsed in the document would tend to make e-cigarettes less available and less attractive compared to smoking, further reducing switching from the high-risk product to the low-risk one. The net result would be more smoking and thus more disease and death.

Part of WHO’s objection was to a parody of their logo that Bates posted, which (at the time of this writing) he has replaced with a text graphic that reads “Graphic removed at the request of the Legal Counsel of the World Health Organization”. But the characterization of “request” is not exactly correct. In the letter sent to Bates by the WHO (which we have obtained a copy of), they threatened to “refer[] the matter to the relevant authorities in the United Kingdom” (where Bates is based) if he did not comply with removing his content. They asserted that he was “using the name and emblem of the World Health Organization (WHO)…in an unauthorized, misleading and libellous manner”.

That accusation is quite troubling from the perspective of a free exchange of ideas. There are very brief substantive claims about particular statements (see below), but notice that the accusation says that the mere act of using the name of WHO when criticizing WHO is unauthorized, misleading and/or libellous. It boggles the mind that WHO is effectively claiming that no one can criticize them by name.  Yet they make that clear as they continue, “The use of the WHO emblem and name, and any abbreviation thereof, is reserved for the official purposes of the Organization in accordance with a resolution adopted at the first World Health Assembly (resolution WHA1.133). Furthermore, the aforementioned resolution expressly prohibits the use of the WHO name and emblem in any matter without the prior authorization of the WHO Director-General. According to our records, WHO has not granted you permission to use its name or emblem for any purpose.”

I am no international lawyer, but it is difficult to imagine that this resolution is enforceable anywhere outside of WHO headquarters, even in the UK with its relatively poor freedom-of-the-press rules. It seems safe to assume that >99% of those reporting on the actions of WHO (including this blog) have no such prior authorization, nor would ever consider asking for it. There are, of course, various laws and treaties that prevent someone from making unauthorized use of a corporate name in ways that implies that he is speaking behalf of the corporation or the statements are endorsed by the corporation. Obviously, those do not apply in this case.

Presumably it was the parody of their logo that triggered this response, but that does not change the fact that WHO is specifically claiming that criticizing them by name is not allowed.

Graphic political parody, including parodies based on corporate logos, is also protected free speech in the USA and most of the civilized world. As is news reporting. To be able to properly understand this news story, it is useful to see the graphic that originally appeared on Bates’s pages:


It should be immediately clear to the reader that this logo is intended as parody — political commentary, specifically — and thus is widely protected free speech (though I do not know exactly what the laws are in the UK). Superimposing a skull-and-crossbones on a corporate logo might be legitimately criticized on the basis of it being cliché.  But the reason it is allowed to occur to the point of cliché is that it is clearly political commentary and parody, and is not misleading. There is no chance of any reader genuinely confusing this graphic with the real WHO logo or believing that it implies that WHO in any way endorsed the posts.

The parody reflects the substantive content of Bates’s reporting, in which he predicts that WHO’s proposed policy “would do more harm to health than it prevents” and the misinformation itself will also cause more people to smoke. He cites a specific example of someone being persuaded to resume smoking as a result of misinformation about e-cigarettes.

WHO’s accusations about Bates’s actual statements are (in total) that it is misleading and libellous to “imply[] that WHO is responsible for preventable deaths” and to “assert[] that WHO is de facto protecting cigarette sales.” The latter appears to refer to the title of the second of the above-linked posts, which derives from a statement in the post. The former refers to Bates’s main thesis. It would certainly be possible for WHO or anyone else to dispute Bates’s arguments. They did not do so. Instead, they asserted without further elaboration that these statements were “incorrect and unfounded information” (the latter word being a rather strange choice), as well as “misleading and libellous”.

The letter demanded Bates “take immediate action to remove the disfigured and misrepresented WHO emblem and related material from your website” (emphasis added). Given the accusations about the core substantive arguments Bates was making, as well as the repeated references to the use of WHO’s name, this seems to imply they are demanding removal of all of Bates’s analyses of WHO actions, and all other mentions of WHO, on his blog. At the time of this writing, Bates has complied with the demand about the logo but has apparently not removed any prose. If this is not sufficient to appease WHO, what comes next could be very interesting indeed.

It is always troubling when someone attempts to use indefensible, but still intimidating, threats of defamation, trademark, or copyright violations to censor legitimate criticism. It becomes more troubling when such threats are made by a large and wealthy entity against an individual journalist, researcher, or policy analyst. But when the threats come from a quasi-governmental organization that is supposed to be representing the welfare of the people of the world, and it is aimed at someone who is seriously questioning whether they are fulfilling that mission — and furthermore, they insist that the mere act of criticizing them by name is a violation — it reaches a higher level still. If the WHO is so defenseless against criticism that this is the only way they can respond to it, perhaps it is time to replace them with people and an organization that are more suited to their role.



28 responses to “WHO responds to criticism over e-cigarettes with attempted censorship

  1. Nice job Carl.

  2. Best. Column. Ever. (or pretty durn close!)
    Love your stuff Carl! Keep up the good stuff and we will help as we can to spread it far and wide!

  3. Geoffrey Cliff

    I say bully for Clive Bates! If his blogs represent WHO as a corrupt and fascistic perverter of scientific facts, and a bullying enclave of self-serving and ideological bureaucrats then he has a knack of telling the truth that cannot be found in the sacred halls of WHO HQ. And if WHO cannot prove him wrong, then they should just shut up and get on with the task in hand – public health! There are plenty of religious bodies ready and willing to promote morality. This is not what WHO should be doing. And if mentioning them by name is an affront, let them sue me. My name is Geoffrey Cliff, and I allow people to use it freely, for I have nothing to hide!

  4. I think the WHO today will indeed learn something new. It’s called the Streisand Effect.

  5. Thanks Carl, it needed to be talked about.

  6. WHO is King of The Moral High Ground[in their own fuzzy little reality]

  7. With a CHINESE leader at the top, how can you expect any kind of democratic thinking from the World Harm Org? :-D

    It’s getting BEYOND ridiculous … and they must be VERY desperate! :-D

  8. Good luck to the organization that shall not be named, the laurel wreath in Clive’s logo is available from Wikimedia Commons, so there the similarity stops.

  9. Hoist the Jolly Roger and keelhaul all the smokers. Quit our way or die! Let’s just see if they can play Pokemon and catch us all. Tweet the logo, let it go viral. :-)
    “We gotta take these bastards. Now we could do it with conventional weapons, but that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part! ” – Animal House (1978)

  10. WHO = “They-WHO-Must-Not-Be-Named” ???

  11. Atakan Befrits

    Sweden, grow a set of Cojones! You need them to call a spade a spade, as well as for successfully procreating. Would be so sad if the world’s most most competently lip-serving social/global conscience just simply rolled over and went extinct.

  12. Norbert Zillatron

    Well, real doctors try to fix the cause, quacks doctor at the symptoms.

    Who addesses the problem?
    WHO prohibits critical voices?

    Case closed. Just bury and forget the victims.

    In former times, doctors WHO failed, often had to deal with enraged friends and family of their victims. Want to see it happen again?

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  15. WHO don’t know what they are talking about
    WHO are not a Health Organisation that are interested in your health
    WHO have got it wrong in the past and will always get it wrong
    WHO are being paid by Big Pharma

  16. I support thé ecig … This méthode save my Life at 60 years old … 1 and half year without tobacco .. Those people liké OMS must to think that thé future génération may accuse thèm of murder

  17. Pingback: WHO responds to criticism over e-cigarettes with attempted censorship. | A school of dolphins

  18. WHO are they to tell me or anyone what to do with their life !.
    my health has nothing to do with WHO so but out

  19. Pingback: The biggest victims of WHO’s anti-harm-reduction efforts are in India | Anti-THR Lies and related topics

  20. Pingback: WHO attempted censorship re e-cigarettes, follow-up | Anti-THR Lies and related topics

  21. Thanks for this post.

    Simon Singh seems to have won a case a few years ago on the grounds his criticisms were ‘fair comment’.

    So perhaps the WHO (sorry, permission not granted to use their name!) do not, as you indeed suggest, have a legal leg to stand on.

  22. Thomas Blomberg

    Thanks for the link, Dave. It’s obvious that WHO hasn’t read that Wiki article, which states that, “On 25 April 2013 the Defamation Act 2013 received Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Assent and became law. The purpose of the reformed law of defamation is to ‘ensure that a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation’. Under the new law, plaintiffs must show that they suffer serious harm before the court will accept the case. Additional protection for website operators, defence of ‘responsible publication on matters of public interest’ and new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion are also part of the key areas of the new law.”

  23. It sounds a good law, although it is still slightly disturbing that a company or organisation may win if it is deemed that ‘they suffer serious harm’ to their reputation. I wonder how on earth that is judged. It’s of interest to me as over the next few years I want to write a few things about another issue (about the psychology profession and various organisation within the profession) and although I would support my position with evidence, certain organisation could simply claim that they have suffered harm to their reputation. This issue is ultimately about profit, funding, status and egos. So it’s a bit of a minefield.

  24. Pingback: WHO responds to criticism over e-cigarettes with attempted censorship | Official site of DJ Michael Heath

  25. It is interesting that WHO have allowed the use of an untried and untested drug in a battle against ebola, but speak out against the ‘untried’ and ‘untested’ e-liquid in the battle against cigarette smoking (I know it’s not really untried and untested, by that’s the official line, isn’t it?).

    What are WHO thinking? Far more people will die from smoking than will die from ebola.

  26. Pingback: Why I can not trust the World Health Organization | oxle

  27. Pingback: No trust without handshakes, or why I don’t trust the WHO | The continuing story

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