Enemies of choice
Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at 15:07
Simon Clark

"Off to Canberra today to help make smoking obsolete!" Attila Danko, President, New Nicotine Alliance Australia, February 14, 2017

2016 concluded with an excellent article by harm reduction expert Carl Phillips on his blog Anti-THR Lies and Related Topics.

The title, 'The year tobacco control officially came to own e-cigarettes', says it all but I urge you to read it and draw your own conclusions.

Not only does it reflect many of my own views, it confirms (intentionally or not) my belief that vaping advocates are increasingly pawns in the long march towards a nicotine-free world.

Worse, some aren't pawns at all. They are enthusiastic soldiers in the war on tobacco who are more than happy to throw smokers under the bus if it suits their agenda.

I don't know if Carl shares that view but, like me, he's been an interested and occasionally quizzical observer as vapers and their representative bodies have climbed into bed with tobacco control in the hope that e-cigarettes will be excluded from the regulation tsunami that awaits any product that is associated, even tenuously, with smoking.

Sadly the people who should have read 'The year tobacco control officially came to own e-cigarettes' almost certainly didn't because it's not what they want to hear.

In fact, not only are some vaping activists beginning to mimic many anti-smoking campaigners, it would seem that dancing to the tune of tobacco control is now de rigueur for many vapers who are terrified of alienating their perceived allies in public health.

The reason this is noteworthy is that choice is anathema for most public health campaigners. They claim to know what's best for smokers (and the population generally) and their target is a 'smoke free' society in which smoking has either been prohibited or relegated to the underbelly of society, out of sight and out of mind.

To achieve that they will support or promote almost any policy – smoking bans, punitive taxation, standardised packaging, legally-binding" smoking cessation targets – that 'helps' smokers quit.

Much has been written about the EU's revised Tobacco Products Directive – including the bans on ten packs and smaller pouches of rolling tobacco (the ban on menthol-flavoured tobacco is still to come) – and the primary impact is on choice.

TPD2 is having a similar impact on vapers – who are being denied larger bottles of e-liquids, for example – but the idea that it might have been better to form a broad coalition dedicated to defending and promoting consumer choice rather than harm reduction escaped most vaping advocates.

Instead they hoped that anti-smoking groups like ASH would ride to the rescue, and what happened? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. ASH stood by and let TPD2 go ahead complete with restrictions on nicotine concentrations and reduced volumes for cartridges, tanks and nicotine liquid containers.

Plain packaging can also be expected to reduce choice. Some brands may disappear completely and the chances of new brands appearing must be slim to say the least.

But who cares? The mindset of tobacco control is that the only smokers who matter are those who want to quit. If you enjoy smoking and don't want to stop you're effectively invisible.

Your views are considered worthless – hence the refusal of anyone in public health to comment on 'The Pleasure of Smoking' report, a silence shared by almost every vaping advocate (with the exception of Dick Puddlecote), even though it contains some interesting insights about the attitudes of confirmed smokers to e-cigarettes that are both positive and negative.

As Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research, put it last week:

“It's the predominant view of smoking that the health consequences of it are so catastrophic that why on earth would one continue to do it, therefore what’s the point of even asking anyone who is doing it why they’re doing it, because they’re so irrational that they’re not going to tell you anything that approximates to rational thought.”

Sadly it's not just governments, public health campaigners and the World Health Organisation whose goal is a 'smoke-free' society and the eradication of choice for those who enjoy smoking.

Some vaping activists are equally committed to a Utopian smoke-free future in which two billion smokers switch to e-cigarettes. A billion lives will be saved and we'll all live happily ever after.

Two weeks ago Dr Attila Danko, president of the New Nicotine Alliance Australia, posted the following comment on Facebook:

"Off to Canberra today to help make smoking obsolete!"

Let me repeat that. A leading pro-vaping advocate declared that he was going to "help make smoking obsolete".

Far from being a throwaway line on social media, Danko repeated the sentiment in an article published two days later on the Nicotine Science and Policy Network website which has close links with some of the leading vaping advocates in the UK.

Headlined 'Momentum building to legalise nicotine for vaping in Australia', he wrote:

The idea of tobacco harm reduction and the huge public health benefits of making smoking obsolete are gaining traction. We have politicians now who are committed to pushing this forward and increasing numbers that are supportive.

To put this in perspective, Attila Danko enjoys an almost heroic status among some vapers. Two years ago at the Global Forum on Nicotine in Warsaw he gave a speech that was so passionate (or messianic, depending on your point of view) he received a standing ovation and ecstatic applause.

To be fair to him, he has been fighting a very difficult battle in a country that is far more hostile to vaping than the UK. It's understandable therefore that his emotions sometimes get the better of him.

Nevertheless I have a serious question and it's this. Does his crusade "to help make smoking obsolete" represent the New Nicotine Alliance worldwide or is it simply the war cry of an excitable campaigner carried away by the thrill of the moment?

I ask because those who 'liked' Danko's comment on Facebook included a trustee and two associates of the New Nicotine Alliance UK, plus Martin Dockrell, an anti-tobacco campaigner formerly employed by ASH who now works for Public Health England.

Whilst I admire and respect a lot of the work the NNA has done, I couldn't help feeling a bit nauseous when I read Danko's comment because it's hard to swallow if you believe that freedom of choice should apply to all consumers, including those who enjoy smoking tobacco and don't want to quit.

The NNA's refusal, when given the opportunity, to condemn hospital smoking bans – which is one of the cruellest examples of the genre because it targets the weak, the elderly and the infirm – is pretty sickening too.

Their policy of refusing to comment on smoking-related issues may be understandable and politically expedient now, but have they never heard of the slippery slope? Apparently not. Then again, check out their trustees and associates and see how many have links with tobacco control and public health.

What is becoming clear is that relatively few advocates of vaping are genuine champions of choice (as I know it) and those that are are slowly being sidelined in favour of activists like Attila Danko who wants to "help make smoking obsolete".

Last week in London Forest hosted a talk by Dr Neil McKeganey, director of the Centre for Substance Use Research in Glasgow and lead author of 'The Pleasure of Smoking: The Views of Confirmed Smokers'.

A few months ago Neil told me he had been criticised for conducting the study which was funded – very transparently – by Forest. I wasn't surprised. What did surprise me, a little, was that vapers were prominent among the dissenting voices.

Neil was told he would "lose credibility" if he worked with Forest. Affable man that he is, he replied that he had "no credibility to lose"!

I kept the information to myself but Neil mentioned it again at last week's event so I guess he's happy for it to be public knowledge. According to Dick Puddlecote:

I learned that he had received condemnation about embarking on [the report] from academics - which you'd expect, of course - but also from some vapers, which was disappointing. He was refreshingly unfazed, though, saying that the people criticising were "unimportant" and that if he was receiving criticism he felt that he was doing a good job.

As it happens the balloon debate that followed Neil's talk featured advocates for six nicotine 'devices' – pipe, cigar, cigarette, snus, heated tobacco and e-cigarette.

The subject of this light-hearted event was 'The Most Pleasurable Nicotine Delivery Device in the World' and the winner – surprise, surprise – was the cigarette.

Frankly, I didn't care which product won. The point was, all these products are pleasurable to someone. Some have mass appeal, others are more niche, but consumer choice is paramount.

I don't care if you smoke, vape, use snus or don't consume any nicotine product. That's your decision and I'll defend your freedom to choose all day long.

Unfortunately it's clear that many advocates of vaping, like tobacco control, support choice but only on terms that will benefit one group of consumers while discriminating against another.

Finally, let me demonstrate how the tobacco control industry is actively embracing e-cigarettes in its quest to force smokers to quit.

On Monday I was on BBC Three Counties radio discussing Public Health England's plan for a "tobacco free NHS". Also on the programme was Amanda Sandford of ASH.

In response to my argument that smoking is a comfort to many people, especially in a stressful environment like a hospital, Amanda argued that people didn't have to smoke because alternative nicotine products, including e-cigarettes and NRT, are available in hospitals.

Adopting the usual tobacco control mindset, she clearly hadn't read 'The Pleasure of Smoking' report. If she had she would have known there are many reasons why committed smokers – even those that have tried vaping – don't want to switch to e-cigarettes or any other nicotine device.

The reasons are stated very clearly in the report so I won't repeat them here. The point is, those perfectly legitimate reasons are being ignored not only by the likes of ASH but also by vapers, one of whom tweeted yesterday:

Yes, I always enjoy a cigarette in the hansom cab on my way to the magic lantern show. #WeHaveBetterTechNow

This was in response to my previous post (Why cigarettes are the real deal), a light-hearted summary of last week's balloon debate, but it sums up the attitude of some vapers.

In their opinion vaping is the future, smoking is the past – and some, like Attila Danko, want to make it history.

Having actually studied the views of confirmed smokers, Neil McKeganey takes a rather different view. "It's hard to imagine a time when there will be nobody smoking," he said last week.

And I agree with him. Yes, vaping is the future, but smoking is the future too.

Thanks to population growth worldwide there are more people smoking today than ever before in human history.

Even in the West, where smoking rates are in long-term decline, millions of adults continue to smoke because many of them enjoy it and they're not going to stop just because tobacco control campaigners and born again vapers dismiss their habit or make sneering comments about the product they consume.

As the name Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco suggests, Forest's primary purpose is to defend the interests of those who enjoy smoking tobacco. In practice however we try not to discriminate between different tobacco/nicotine products or consumers.

Whenever we're asked to defend the consumption of e-cigarettes, or criticise unnecessary or punitive regulations designed to restrict both their sale or use, we speak out.

Unfortunately tobacco control and some vaping advocates are increasingly singing from the same prohibitionist hymn sheet. There are exceptions, of course, and I would give an honourable mention to Judy Gibson, who runs the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations.

Judy was a contestant in our balloon debate and was a spirited advocate of e-cigarettes. Off stage she emphasised she supports freedom of choice for all and I didn't doubt her for a minute. I do question some aspects of the INNCO's agenda – which I will write about another time – but I suspect they are beyond her control. Kudos though to Judy for engaging with us last week and giving as good as she got.

Another honourable mention goes to Andrew Allison, who runs the Freedom Association's Freedom to Vape campaign. I've had my differences with the campaign (see Pro-vaping campaign leaves me speechless) but Andrew's review of last week's event (Fun in the Pleasure Zone), and the fact that he took the trouble to attend, suggests we're probably closer in outlook than I thought.

I stand by my earlier post but it was nevertheless encouraging to read:

The purpose of the evening was, as Simon Clark said, not to tell people what device they should use, if indeed they want to use any. It was about freedom to choose.

Indeed it was, which is why the absence of so many vaping advocates who might have been expected to be there spoke volumes.

Together with a handful of other vaping activists, Andrew and Judy strike me as genuine supporters of choice but they need to have a word with campaigners whose goal is "to help make smoking obsolete" because that, as we know, is the antithesis of choice.

Defend and promote choice for all consumers, including smokers, and you have a clear, distinct message. Pick and choose in the name of harm reduction and you're playing with fire (no pun intended).

Carl Phillips touched on this when he queried the benefit of the claim that e-cigarettes are "95 per cent less harmful than cigarettes". The gist of what Carl was saying, I think, is that if we believe everything tobacco control says about smoking, a product that is "95 per cent less harmful" than combustible cigarettes still represents a risk.

Put it like this. Even if you believe the worst estimates of deaths allegedly caused by 'passive' smoking, and the worst estimates of deaths caused by primary smoking, environmental tobacco smoke represents a relatively small risk in comparison. Despite that the alleged risks of 'passive' smoking have been used again and again to justify one of the most illiberal post Millennium laws we've seen in this country.

The battle cannot therefore be focussed on harm reduction alone. The heart and soul of this debate must be about choice and personal responsibility and if you're ambivalent about either concept the only logical step is to adopt the precautionary principle and support significant restrictions on the sale and consumption of any recreational product that is potentially harmful or addictive.

Turn your back on those who enjoy smoking and don't want to quit and you're no better than the tobacco control campaigners who seek to denormalise millions of consumers, or the politicians who implement – with very little evidence or debate – their increasingly restrictive ideas.

You are, in short, an enemy of choice.

In contrast, to demonstrate Forest's unambiguous support for choice, here's the press release we issued to the media in Ireland – where it's National No Smoking Day – earlier today.

Key to smoking cessation is education not coercion say campaigners

The smokers' group Forest Ireland has welcomed a call by Vape Business Ireland for the Department of Health and the HSE to publish information about vaping as an alternative to smoking on the quit.ie website.

Speaking on National No Smoking Day (1st March), Forest Ireland spokesman John Mallon said tobacco control policies should focus on education not coercion.

He said: "Smokers must be given as much information as possible about alternative nicotine products, including e-cigarettes.

"Vaping is popular because it mimics the act of smoking and enables smokers to cut down or quit smoking on their own terms.

"In contrast policies likes plain packaging are a deliberate attempt to denormalise not only the product but also the consumer and that's unacceptable."

He added: "The key to smoking cessation is education not coercion.

"Adults who enjoy smoking and don't want to stop should not be ostracised or demonised for their habit.

"Tobacco is a legal product and a significant minority of the population enjoy smoking and have no intention of giving up.

"Whatever the merits of alternative nicotine products like e-cigarettes, that choice must be respected."

Can you imagine tobacco control or any vaping organisation issuing a similar statement?

No, nor can I.

Update on Wednesday, March 1, 2017 at 15:12 by Registered CommenterSimon Clark

Late last night I saw that ASH had tweeted a link to a media briefing published ahead of the Budget and No Smoking Day which both fall on March 8.

Headlined 'Ditch or Switch – Give Yourself a Pay Rise!', it encourages smokers to give up nicotine completely (the real endgame, in case you hadn't noticed) because it's "best for both your pocket and your health".

However the briefing also suggests that "switching from smoking to using electronic cigarettes can also help smokers to quit", adding:

Use of electronic cigarettes can also save smokers money: for example the Leicester Stop Smoking Service report that smokers who switch to vaping tell them they save up to 90% of the money they used to spend on smoking.

The document features quotes from two people, ASH CEO Deborah Arnott, and Louise Ross, a stop smoking service manager who is also an associate of ... the New Nicotine Alliance!

I mention this not to denigrate Ross's work (which I respect) but because it complements the point Carl Philips was making in his post, 'The year tobacco control officially came to own e-cigarettes'.

Anyway, I've thought of a sub-title for ASH's briefing paper. Inspired by Carl, 'The year No Smoking Day officially came to own e-cigarettes' seems appropriate.

Any other ideas?

PS. It was reported today that 'Fewer people are using e-cigarettes to quit smoking'.

It's not clear why this the case (if indeed it's true) so this is pure speculation, but I'm prepared to stick my neck out and say the more that vaping advocates join forces with tobacco control the more unattractive vaping will seem in the eyes of confirmed smokers and others who have yet to switch.

The success of e-cigarettes as a quit smoking aid is surely because they empower smokers to take back control (for want of a better expression) without state invention (ie stop smoking services and other tools of the nanny state).

Now e-cigarettes are being commandeered (or 'owned') by tobacco control they could be losing some of their appeal.

Just a thought.

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