This Needs to Stop! INNCO Calls Out Harm Reduction Deniers for Routinely Slandering and Intimidating People Who Use Safer Nicotine (PWUSN) to Avoid Toxic Forms of Tobacco

Geneva, Switzerland, 17 August 2022 – A recent paper by researchers at the University of Bath, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), found that “almost three-quarters” of 23 people in the tobacco control field say they feel harassed by ex-smokers who have become harm reduction advocates. Bath researchers found, “The most frequently reported forms of intimidation were discreditation on social or traditional media, legal threats/action and threatening messages.” 

INNCO rejects and abhors harassment or intimidation of any kind. But, the BMJ article is ironic because our community is routinely bullied, stigmatized, sued and intimidated (including with documented death threats), blocked on social media, expelled from public meetings, and slandered by experts and advocates in the tobacco control field. 

INNCO is a non-profit organization formed in 2016. We are an alliance of 37 independent volunteer-led Member Organisations on every continent in the world. INNCO supports the human rights and well-being of 112 million adults worldwide who use safer nicotine alternatives to avoid toxic forms of tobacco.

Yet, throughout INNCO’s existence, it has been slandered with ad hominem accusations and consistently expelled from biennial Conferences of Parties (COPs) of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Our embrace of “harm reduction” is assumed to be an industry ploy. Our lived-experience (healthier) is ignored.

This narrative has become the biggest ammunition in the arsenal of tobacco control professionals who have adopted the habit of repeatedly intimidating or bullying hundreds of advocates, health professionals, and politicians who have manifested their support of harm reduction for people who smoke.

Among the recent cases of intimidation, INNCO calls to attention an event in Mexico where Dr. Gady Zabicky Sirot, commissioner for addictions, while commenting on the reasons for the exclusion of pro-harm reduction legislators and consumer associations from a forum related to regulation of smoking alternatives, in front of the cameras, endorsed a comment by Erick Antonio Ochoa, director of the civil association Salud Justa, linked to Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the Bloomberg Foundation, saying: “in a congress on malaria you do not invite anopheline mosquitoes, even if they are involved in the epidemic, because they are involved as transmitters of the epidemic”. Comparing nicotine users fighting for their rights to mosquitoes is debasing and utterly aggressive. And the whole example is blatantly ignorant since patient organisations would be invited to such a congress.

Another case was where Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos, researcher from the University of Patras, Greece, was attacked by a journalist funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the University of Bath. He was obligated by the circumstances to send a letter to the journalist indicating that legal actions against the “Investigative Desk” for defamation would be taken. In his letter, he called out the University of Bath and Bloomberg Philanthropies saying: The University of Bath has a long-established anti-nicotine agenda and has received millions of US dollars in funding from the Bloomberg Foundation. Both Bloomberg and the University of Bath have a rich history of ad hominem attacks on anyone who publishes studies relevant to nicotine and tobacco harm reduction that support their role in combating smoking and reducing smoking prevalence”. 

These are two of thousands of insults, other forms of direct attacks and threats (including death threats), periodically received by pro-harm reduction advocates, health professionals, and politicians. INNCO conducted an informal survey on the subject of harassment within the harm reduction community and was amazed by some of the responses received:

“It’s painful. It throws me into depression and self depreciation. I feel like a failure. I feel invisible, like what I have to say isn’t important. I feel like they want me dead.”

“I’ve known people who left advocacy because they were worn down by the constant attacks. People who live in constant fear due to their continued advocacy, and still others who would fear to say in public what they express privately.”

“For over six months I received death threats via my shop telephone.”

“My tweets are often mined by “researchers” and twisted in ‘peer-reviewed publications’ as bot activity”

“One example of the constant harassment harm reduction advocates go through is Bath’s TobaccoTactics where information obtained in websites is manipulated to make the reader believe that supporters of harm reduction are financed by Big Tobacco. In this list which is deliberately made to picture advocates as criminals and discredit them in every way possible, you see false information and there’s no way for unfunded harm reduction volunteers to sue the multi-million dollar Bloomberg-funded University. I pray to God that someday the harassment and aggression stop. “

INNCO notes that the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) 10th Conference of Parties (COP10) will be held in November 2023, in Panama City. The FCTC has repeatedly excluded INNCO from the previous Conferences of Parties, not caring that we are an accredited observer and have fulfilled all requirements to be present. This highlights the secrecy and lack of transparency of the Secretariat of the FCTC which blocks the participation of any organisation or entity that supports harm reduction alternatives. If history repeats then INNCO’s application for Observer Status will be denied as it was in COP9 (2021) and COP8 (2018). Most journalists will be expelled as well (as they have been at all previous FCTC COPs). 

INNCO condemns all forms of ad hominem attacks on all persons fighting for theirs and the rights of others to make informed choices about their health and well being. “It needs to stop”, says Dr. Charles A. Gardner, Executive Director of INNCO, “I have devoted my entire career to improving global health, focusing on HIV, TB, malaria, nutrition and child health. When I worked in the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and in the Rockefeller Foundation, I supported organizations that promoted condoms to reduce risk of sexually transmitted diseases.  No one ever accused me of working for Big Condom. Today, however, I am constantly bullied by people in the tobacco control field who accuse me of working for Big Tobacco.  This ugly childish ad hominem bullying is a real thing.  I experience it frequently.”

Dr. Gardner added:  “INNCO encourages good behavior by harm reduction advocates in our community, and we set a positive example.  We share peer-reviewed scientific evidence respectfully, daily.  But all of our members are painfully familiar with being blocked and slandered. For communicating facts and evidence in an effort to save the lives of 1.3 billion people worldwide who use toxic forms of tobacco, we are accused almost daily of working for big tobacco… an industry most of us actually hate. We have developed a tough skin, but the venom in some of these messages is, I assume, at least as intimidating as the messages advocates for vaccine use receive from anti-vaxxers.