Last week I (CVP) was at the TabExpo conference in Prague. It was an interesting experience, though not so much in good ways, unfortunately. The networking was great, and I had fun and worked out some plans for some very promising projects. Beyond that, well…. Here are a random collection of thoughts and observations.
I was part of a congress (scientific meeting) that existed alongside a giant trade show that had >100 booths, mostly with merchants trying to sell their contributions production and distribution process for, in almost all cases, cigarettes. Like most any trade show that includes lots of tangible visible products, it was interesting and fun, if you either liked the underlying business or just temporarily ignored your feelings about it. The congress, by contrast, had no exciting displays or free beer. It included most of a day about harm reduction (what I was participating in, of course), along with related sessions on various aspects of regulation, and black markets, and unrelated sessions on various technical topics.
The one thing that was striking about the trade show was the presence of about a half dozen e-cigarette merchants. That is the good news. The bad news is that they (all representing Chinese manufacturers, and there to try to recruit new distributors/retailers to buy and brand their OEM products) struck me as about as socially responsible as, well, the average merchant who was there. That is not to suggest there was anything terrible about them, or about the average merchant there, but to express disappointment: Not one of them I talked to had any idea there was a tobacco harm reduction movement in West, or had heard of CASAA or other organizations/projects. I felt like THR was a fairly minor issue in their minds, and was nothing more than one of many selling points for the product, alongside “this one looks like a cigar!” or “we can provide the highest quality packaging!”.
In fact, the only merchant that seemed to be really pushing the health side was selling a substitute product, rather than a THR product: a green tea vaporizer e-cigarette with no tobacco or nicotine. They were claiming that this product reverses the lung damage done by smoking (or, presumably, breathing the air in China), and have a brochure with pictures of a lung going through stages of becoming less blackened. Well, obviously they were fake pictures, because even if the health claims were true, lungs are notoriously difficult to photograph while inside the body (wet, dark) and once they are outside the body, they tend to stop getting healthier. Things like that almost make you sympathize with the FDA regulators.
Still, having e-cigarette hawkers occupy any of the floor space strikes me as a gain compared to the last one of these I was at, two years ago, where I do not think there was any presence. Maybe it will work as a wake-up call to the other merchants where nothing else will.
[That reminds me of the previous one of these I attended, in Bangkok a couple of years ago. I forget if I ever blogged about the wild events that week: The government caved to pressure at the last minute to try to shut it down. The venue was moved way across town and the merchants were forbidden from showing any consumer products, including images of them, and possibly tobacco leaf itself. Needless to say, complying with this (on the grounds of a law that is supposed to protect children from seeing evil images -- never mind that this was a closed conference that no one could enter without volition and paying a fee, and obviously everyone was adults) was difficult. Indeed, it apparently failed because near the end of the conference, some local government and QUANGO ANTZ marched in with the local cops they bribed and tried to arrest the conference organizers for violating the rule.
The best part of that story was that the local ANTZ took several hundred school children out of school, paying them some pocket change for their time, and bussed them to the venue to protest along a roadway -- it was great to see them what "think of the children" really means to these people. Some speakers from the congress went out and invited the protesters (the leaders, obviously, not the hireling children) to come in and participate in the harm reduction sessions at the congress -- they refused, of course. The most amusing part of the fiasco that due to the forced withdrawal of the Thai Tobacco Monopoly (which is to say, the government's large tobacco company -- yes, the same government that was trying to shut it down), their huge booth space was filled by the Thai government’s tourism operation, which brought in very young women who stood around in very little clothing and gave out drinks to the attendees, mostly men in suits -- yes, this is what the Thai government does to try discourage the reputation that there is anything seedy about Thailand, like the government selling cigarettes.]
Anyway, this week I participated in a panel discussion on THR. It was kind of odd to not be giving a talk, but just because I am used to headlining does not mean I am not happy to not have to prepare anything! I decided I would follow my usual self-defeating Cassandra role of being too far ahead of the room to be appreciated, with a single populist message: The industry is made of up institution-oriented people who are part of the 1% (actually probably mostly in the next two or three percent below that, but you would not know what I meant if I said “the 3%”) and used to dealing with master-of-the-universe types in Geneva, Brussels, Washington, etc., and so is comfortable trying to negotiate with regulators to try to achieve a government-endorsed harm reduction miracle. And they are optimistic about it working out that way, at least as concerns the US FDA. But, I argued, the anti-tobacco extremists have enough power over the regulators, despite claims about “science based policy”, that there is little reason for optimism. I could be wrong, of course, but I cannot summon up much optimism.
I argued that the second-best thing that could realistically happen would be for the industries to fight the regulators to a standstill, so that they cannot take any more anti-THR steps (like the FDA’s attempt to ban e-cigarettes), allowing consumers to continue to learn about THR and switch to low risk products, as is the trend. The best realistic scenario would be for the elements of the industry that support THR to start working with consumers, treating them like the primary stakeholder they are, to encourage THR. (Again, it is possible that governments and super-governments could change their tunes and start supporting THR, which would be better still, but I just do not see it happening until consumer THR awareness and action makes it too embarrassing for them to continue their present policies.)
I pointed out that it was indeed Wrong to act, when supposedly acting from the “corporate responsibility” perspective, as if the stakeholders that the industry needs to deal with are the regulators and anti-tobacco busy-bodies. These are not stakeholders, and calling them that is a perversion of the term by the 1%-types to try to deny that the interests of millions of considers are most important, and they are the really primary stakeholder (with the industries secondary and the others relevant only insofar as they are helping out the primary).
Before I went into that, I led off with an observation asking the audience to consider an open minded person who is concerned with public health, and who was open to attempts by me, other panelists, and others to persuade them that parts of the industry are anxious to be part of the solution to the effects of smoking. I suggested that we would immediately lose that person if he were to see one particular image from the congress and hear one soundbite spoken at the expo’s main dinner event. And there were several other candidates for damning observations if those were not available. I am not talking about things that would just cause ANTZ to go crazy (“Lord have mercy! look at those evil people who are trying to sell improved logistics control processes! and they are smoking indoors!!!!”), but rather things that would trouble an honest observer. These do not, of course, change the fact that there are positive efforts from within the industry (I was there for a day of talks about harm reduction, after all), but optics matter.
[Oh, and sorry: I am not going to report exactly what I am referring to. While I doubt that anyone from ANTZland reads this blog regularly (since they are usually deathly afraid of being exposed to any ideas that might threaten their cherished faith), I suspect that it is periodically mined by those who consider "research" to be a word for "hunt up anything we can find that, when cited out of context, will support our cause". It was fairly interesting, though, so anyone who talks to me personally might want to ask me about it and apologies to the rest of you.]
The low point of the meeting was listening to one of the presenters, who tried to summarize THR, getting wrong about 15% of what he said, and implying that the rest of it was somehow new and original innovation even though it was nothing more than what many of us have been saying for most of a decade. I am not going to identify him because I am not trying to embarrass him. (However, I have to say I will not show such restraint if he really has a publication coming out, as he hinted, that claims that his own exciting new research has discovered… well, facts and insights that appeared in the 2006 TobaccoHarmReduction.org FAQ and continue to appear and be updated in our summary report on THR (e.g., Chapter 2 of the 2010 Yearbook, and our forthcoming chapter in the Alan Marlatt tribute book, Harm Reduction 2nd Edition.)
My reason for mentioning this is to express further dismay about the stalled state of THR among the elite or chattering classes. There has been great innovation in products and progress in uptake of THR, of course, which is much more important. But the discussion has been pretty much stalled, perhaps waiting for governments to act. So apparently the only way to liven things is to bring in someone with nothing new to say who just repeats (in a mangled fashion) exactly what many of us have been saying for most of a decade. Of course, that statement is part self reflection — apparently I do not have enough that is interesting to say that I did not say in 2009 (which may indeed be the last time I introduced a genuinely new important idea). What more can we say to help move things forward? Or are we researchers and chatterers basically done, and the world will evolve based on what we have put on the record, with it not much mattering what more we do now?
I actually think that the populist thinking, as an alternative to supplicating to regulators and ANTZ, is important — both as a social science point and a practical suggestion. But, as I said, that may be a bit too far ahead of the room. Or I might be wrong. But my experience says that two or three years from now, someone will be reciting a mangled version of the same points — without citing precedent and thereby claiming it is some purely personal discovery — and the room will be impressed by their insight.