As I mentioned last week I was a panellist at the third Next Generation Nicotine Delivery conference in London.
A two-day event, the second day coincided with the fourth E-Cigarette Summit, also in London, which struck me as a terrible bit of planning.
I’m told the date of the Next Generation conference was confirmed first. Nevertheless organisers of both events should have tried harder to avoid a clash.
I’ve written about the E-Cigarette Summit before and I suspect the views I expressed last year are equally valid now. But I’ll come back to that later.
Unlike the E-Cig Summit the Next Generation conference was industry led and there was far greater emphasis on markets, regulations and the actual products.
Speakers included James Murphy, British American Tobacco; Liam Humberstone, Totally Wicked; Dr Nveed Chaudhry, Philip Morris International; Bo Edberg, former senior vice president, NJOY Electronic Cigarettes; Mike Cameron, CEO, SMOKO; Dr Taman Powell, CEO, Xolo Vape, and many more.
Lead sponsor was EL-Science which is “dedicated solely to eLiquid analysis and manufacture”.
Other sponsors included IntraTab Labs whose “products will never damage the lungs in the manner that occurs from smoking or any inhaled nicotine product”, and Hertz Flavors whose “long term commitment and dedication to the tobacco industry has made us a preferred partner and Europe's leading supplier for unique flavours of premium quality.”
I thought the sessions might be rather technical but the ones I attended were presented in plain English and I learned quite a lot.
To fully appreciate the revolution that’s taking place it’s important to understand that e-cigarettes are just one of many emerging products.
True, they have a significant head start and markets are developing quickly in a number of countries, but it’s only part of the story.
To begin with ‘e-cigarette’ hardly begins to describe a category that includes so many devices. It’s a bit like using 'cigarette' as a generic name for cigarettes, cigars, pipes and shishas.
New kids on the block include tobacco heating products (aka ‘heat not burn’) and a hybrid product that combines e-cigarette technology with tobacco. Not quite sure how that works. I must find out.
We were also given a sales pitch for a nicotine tablet that melts in your mouth. Can't see that taking off big time but if there's a market for nicotine nasal inhalers there must be a market for tablets.
Personally I find all these developments fascinating. The work that’s going into developing safer nicotine products is genuinely impressive.
Of course it's not just about the product. There's also the consumer to consider.
In e-cigarette terms there's the “extrovert enthusiast” who is notable, said one speaker, for his tattoos and beard. This group, and the larger more complex devices they use, is no longer a growth area it seems.
Does that mean that vape festivals are an endangered species? We'll see.
The most important group of consumers, we were told, has no interest in politics or web forums. All they want is a convenient alternative to the combustible cigarette. "This is the market segment everyone wants to serve."
Another speaker suggested that open systems will never appeal to the mass market. Closed systems are the future, convenience is the key.
There was in addition a welcome note of reality. “Cigarettes,” declared another speaker (not me!), “are going to be here for a very, very long time.”
The E-Cigarette Summit is a much bigger event. It benefits too from having a far more prestigious venue. The elegant Royal Society near Pall Mall versus the rather dowdy Thistle City Hotel near the Barbican – which would you choose?
It’s equally clear however that the E-Cigarette Summit is a public health event. The organisers say it’s “solely funded through delegate revenues” but that’s a bit misleading.
Yes, the private sector (consumers and industry) is represented but the single largest group of delegates is a combination of public health professionals and lobbyists most of whose places will be funded by the taxpayer.
Also, check the programme. With one or two exceptions it's dominated by one public health speaker after another. I may have felt like a “square peg in a round hole” at the Next Generation conference but at least the organisers invited me to speak.
From what I've read the closest the E-Cigarette Summit came to an alternative point of view was giving a session to someone from the British Medical Association. The BMA may be ambivalent about e-cigarettes but they still fit the Summit's anti-smoking agenda.
And here's the problem. In my view the more vaping is promoted by public health as an "approved" activity the less it will appeal to the millions of smokers who have yet to switch.
The attraction of e-cigarettes, or so we are told, is that they empower smokers to quit without state intervention or the nagging voice of your local stop smoking service.
Instead – and the E-Cigarette Summit exemplifies this – vaping is slowly but surely being appropriated by public health and a host of taxpayer-funded anti-smoking lobby groups.
I'm certain the majority of public health professionals who currently support e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking would prefer their use to be relatively short-term. Long-term nicotine use is definitely not on the agenda.
The elephant in the room – which I tried to point out during the panel discussion at the Next Generation conference – is that millions of people enjoy smoking and the majority won't quit until there is a product that matches or exceeds the pleasure of smoking. For some smokers e-cigarettes meet that criteria but it's still a relatively small minority.
At the E-Cigarette Summit I attended in 2013 there were two principal camps – tobacco control campaigners and advocates of e-cigarettes. Since then those two camps have edged closer together.
Three years ago Deborah Arnott, CEO of ASH, supported the precautionary position with regard to e-cigarettes. Her reluctance to endorse them wholeheartedly put her at odds with her predecessor Clive Bates. Today, in public at least, she is a little more enthusiastic.
Likewise the leading vaping advocates have moved irrevocably in the direction of tobacco control, adopting some of the language of public health while passively embracing (ie refusing to condemn) almost every anti-smoking policy of the last 15 years.
The two groups meet in private. They also invite representatives from each camp to address their various conferences. Don’t be fooled though. This is not an equal partnership. The public health industry is clearly in control.
The E-Cigarette Summit is one example. Another was the decision to ban vaping in plenary meetings at the Global Nicotine Forum in Warsaw in June. The policy was introduced to appease a single public health delegate who had complained about being "trapped" by "unpleasant and distracting" vapour.
Officially the policy was also introduced to avoid antagonising any Polish ministers or officials who had been invited to attend. It made no difference. Three months later the Polish government banned the use of e-cigarettes in public spaces.
Appeasement doesn't work. Banning vaping (at the behest of public health) at an e-cigarette conference was a classic example of who is really calling the shots. The subsequent ban on vaping in public places was a further kick in the teeth and I can’t believe the organisers of GFN have agreed to return to Warsaw in 2017.
At the very least the conference should take place in a vaper-friendly country. Instead the organisers are effectively handing control of the conference to public health and the tentacles of tobacco control have once again strangled an event that ought to be celebrating not restricting consumer choice.
In contrast what I enjoyed about the Next Generation event was the general absence of public health nannies and the suspicion that tobacco control was effectively pulling the strings.
Unlike the E-Cigarette Summit we didn't have to listen to lectures about excluding or how to deal with the tobacco industry.
Don’t get me wrong. Every speaker that I listened to at the Next Generation conference supported risk reduction products with enthusiasm (none more so than James Murphy, head of Biosciences at British American Tobacco) but there was no preaching and health issues weren’t rammed down our throats.
Although I described myself as a “square peg in a round hole” in a previous post I never felt unwelcome. There was no hostility and I genuinely felt we were all on the same side.
In an ideal world there would be a single conference that brings together over two or three days the speakers and panellists that attended both the E-Cigarette Summit and the Next Generation Nicotine Delivery conference.
They are very different events but a fusion of the two would be extremely interesting and informative for everyone. The Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum is edging in that direction but an event that brings together all parties should be organised and hosted by an independent third party.
There's a need to understand the health issues but that must go hand in hand with an appreciation of the products that are available or in development, the problems faced by over-regulation, and the need for everyone – industry, consumers, public health – to work together.
Adults who enjoy smoking and don’t want to quit must also be represented, not only to convey that important message but to make the point that, ultimately, it’s about giving consumers a choice so they can make informed decisions freely and without harassment.
The sticking point is the refusal of many tobacco control groups to share a platform with the tobacco companies and critics of public health. Worse, there’s a Stalinist determination among some public health professionals to smear anyone who engages with the tobacco industry.
Sadly even the more moderate public health campaigners are averse to open, civilised debate. Their culture is based on secrecy, prohibition and, most important, control.
I will take the E-Cigarette Summit seriously but only when the organisers open it up to include some of the industry speakers who lit up the Next Generation Nicotine Delivery conference.
If that means a handful of tobacco control campaigners boycott the event, so what? The conference will still take place and it will be bigger, better and more interesting than ever.