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« Risk and rhetoric - more from GTNF | Main | Pick of the week »

Mandela, moon landings and JFK - GTNF 2017

On reflection I'm not sure I have a lot to say about last week's Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York.

The most dramatic development took place before a word had even been spoken.

While delegates were still bleary-eyed from the previous night's 'Welcome Reception' at the Rockefeller Center, the Financial Times (five hours ahead of us) was reporting that Philip Morris International had pledged to give $1 billion to a new organisation called – wait for it – the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

The money will be donated over twelve years - $80 million annually.

Head of the foundation is former WHO official Derek Yach who helped create the global Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and is now a leading advocate of e-cigarettes.

To be honest I don't think anyone was seriously surprised. In recent years PMI has perfected both its anti-smoking credentials and the art of public relations so what could be more natural than the announcement, on the eve of the tobacco industry's foremost global convention, of a billion dollar gift to a body that seeks to eradicate combustible tobacco from the face of the Earth?

Yach and PMI's Marc Firestone were both scheduled to address delegates at the conference but the first keynote speaker was Debra Crew, CEO of Reynolds American.

Crew gave an assured speech in which she diplomatically welcomed PMI's initiative without mentioning the new foundation by name. Instead she focussed on the development of safer nicotine delivery systems, using this analogy:

"If we can put a man on the moon, we can deliver tobacco to people with less risk than smoking," Crew said in a speech at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York on Wednesday. She likened Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's new tobacco initiatives to President John F. Kennedy's quest to put a man on the moon. Gottlieb's vision, like Kennedy's, can be a leap for mankind, she said.

It was a good soundbite but if associating one of America's most iconic presidents with a leading public health official seemed a bit over the top, more was to come.

Invoking World War II, another speaker cited the example of the French and Germans who got together after the war to create a trade zone he credited with bringing long-term peace to Europe.

If wartime enemies could put the past aside, he seemed to suggest, so could public health and the tobacco industry.

Turning the hyperbole meter up to ten, another speaker then casually dropped Nelson Mandela into the mix.

The connection between the former South African president and tobacco harm reduction escaped me but it summed up the tone of the first morning even if Mitch Zeller, the uncompromising director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, did his best to bring delegates down to earth with an unmistakable dose of reality.

Significantly consumers were completely absent from the main stage which was dominated by a succession of public health advocates and tobacco industry executives.

One panel managed to discuss the importance of stakeholder engagement without mentioning consumers at all. Listening to the five panellists (four of whom were public health campaigners, the other a professional 'mediator') it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the only stakeholders that matter in this brave new world are public health and the tobacco companies.

No surprise then that the principal speakers over the two days were split evenly between these two groups. Other stakeholders, including investors, were sidelined to smaller plenary sessions.

Consumers were allocated just one plenary session ('Risk and Regulation, the impact of excessive legislation on consumer behaviour') and even that was moderated by a tobacco industry executive.

Despite these reservations GTNF remains by some distance the pre-eminent tobacco and nicotine conference. It has led the way in discussing and promoting harm reduction and it's done more than any other conference to bring together parties that previously viewed one another with enormous suspicion.

In doing so it has exposed the more extreme factions within public health - those who won't share a public platform with the tobacco industry or engage in any meaningful discussion.

There's a danger of course that GTNF will become just another anti-smoking convention but while I moan about the lack of consumer participation and the ongoing drive towards a smoking cessation agenda, it's still the only global conference that gives a platform (however small) to confirmed smokers or their representative bodies (in this instance Forest and NYC Clash).

It's also the only conference I know that makes an effort to accommodate smokers by arranging for venues to have smoking areas and, where possible, smoking rooms.

You may argue that's the very least a tobacco industry event should do but in the current anti-smoking climate it would be easy and even expedient to quietly ignore the needs of consumers.

I know, for example, that the provision of smoking areas in hotels and buildings that are normally 'no smoking' comes at a significant financial cost.

At the Rockefeller Centre, for example, the organisers of GTNF had to pay not only for a designated smoking area on the 65th floor (the same floor as the reception) but also for security guards whose job it was to prevent absent-minded guests from re-entering the building from the outdoor terrace while carrying a lit cigarette.

A bit heavy-handed? Certainly, but without them there wouldn't have been a smoking area at all because the Center wouldn't have allowed it. (Smokers, it seems, can't be trusted to stub out their cigarettes without the presence of men in uniform.)

As for the designated smoking room ... what can I say? A nice touch appreciated by those who were privy to its existence.

Photo above courtesy GTNF

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Reader Comments (2)

In other words the tobacco industry is selling out its core consumers to create a product that meets the needs of those who don't use it and never will - ie :smokerphobic health professionals.

I hope the iniative fails and the companies go bust. They deserve it after abandoning the very people who helped to create their wealth.

Tobacco companies have failed to protect us from public health hate campaigns. Now they are happy to serve our heads on a platter to their masters in tobacco control.

It looks like smokerphobics began to infiltrate the industry some time ago to force it to this point. After all, only a rabid anti smoker wants a future world with no smokers in it not a company that depends upon them for business.

Be assured that when forced to quit or switch, I will not use any inferior product pushed by either PMI or Reynolds.

I would say to smokers, be discreet, but start growing your own now so that when the day comes, like me, you can stick 2 fingers up to the lot of them.

Friday, September 22, 2017 at 14:08 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

Wonderfully put, Pat! You summarized exquisitely.

Now, about that speaker who used the post-war French-German analogy... What's NOT the same is that this hardly "after the war." The war rages on TODAY. So this is more like collaborating with the enemy while they are still the enemy.

Saturday, September 23, 2017 at 5:40 | Unregistered CommenterAudrey Silk

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