Random thoughts on TabExpo and the future of THR chattering

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.

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  • Paul  On November 25, 2011 at 11:14 am

    The amusing consideration of how difficult it is to photograph inside a lung (dark, wet) reminded me of a Groucho Marx quote: “Outside of a dog a book is a man’s best friend – inside a dog it’s too dark to read”.

  • jredheadgirl  On November 25, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    “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.”

    This is a common sense approach to THR, which unfortunately has not been (and probably never will be) embraced or endorsed by the massive bureaucracy that is tobacco control. These are the people who are making it impossible for smokers like me to communicate with the producers and marketers of various tobacco products and its alternatives.

    How is it possible for the industry to communicate with its customers if they are not allowed to arm them/us with the basic scientific facts with regards to the various properties of tobacco products in the first place? The fact that millions of us are denied this information is what amounts to a violation of free speech under the 1st Amendment for all of the parties involved. Not only are the ANTZ violating our 1st Amendment right to free and open communication, they are violating our human rights as well. Being able to make informed choices as adults on the products that we choose to consume is a human right. Without the dissemination of valuable information on the various/relative risks on ALL tobacco and tobacco related products, we smokers are denied the right to make informed choices that ultimately result in huge implications for our livelihood and health. Quite simply put, the QUIT OR DIE approach is quite literally killing us! But, you know that already…

    The FDA should be working with the industry, not against it, so as to inform those of us that continue to smoke on the various hazards of smoking, chewing, and vaping. They can start by being honest about various curing practices, filtering methods, growing/farming/soil issues, etc…. and maybe (ok, this would take a miracle), they could even be honest with us on the issue of moderation and there being a dose-response relationship, etc…Er, but I’m not holding my breath (pun intended). We the people are going to have to demand change. The problem lies in the lock-down of information. How do you start a populist movement if there is no way to educate the base?

  • Manfred Neuberger  On November 26, 2011 at 9:27 am

    The Czech Republic attempts to distract the tobacco control movement from tobacco prevention to smoking cessation and from quitting to harm reduction, so that the tobacco industry can stay in business. A tobacco control activist may cause trouble when engaging against second hand smoke, but if you keep him busy with a cessation clinic, which does not really change smoking prevalence in the population, the troublemaker is neutralized. Even more sophisticated is the lie about reduction of smoking, while diversifying nicotine products on the free market, creating gateway drugs for children and making it more difficult to quit by so-called harm reduction cigarettes.

  • Carl V Phillips  On November 26, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Paul, That is perhaps my all time favorite joke. I suspect it was in my subconscious when I wrote that line. Thanks for the flattering comparison to Groucho!

    Juliette, I totally agree with you that the primary problem is that those who pretend to care about public health act systematically prevent education (by industry or anyone) and discourage populist action. Still, I think the industry (that is, the elements of the industry that are genuinely interested in promoting harm reduction) is conceding far more to this than they need to. I understand the response to my call of “what are we supposed to do? we are not allowed to….” But to respond to that challenge by not even trying to push where they can is still a legitimate basis for criticism of them, I think. Premature surrender to the anti-public-health ANTZ, without even trying, is not socially responsible action.

    Manfred, Might I suggest that you look into the accuracy of some of what you have been indoctrinated to believe. Your assertions about gateway and “more difficult to quit”, to pick just two of your claims, are flatly contrary to the scientific evidence. Also, there was nothing in what I was writing about that had anything to do with the Czech Republic, other than the classically Stalinist conference center in which we met — I don’t think the Republic had any involvement with the meeting at all. One thing you did get right was the characterization “cause trouble when engaging against second hand smoke” — the attacks on second hand smoke are primarily designed to just trouble smokers, not to pursue any significant public health goal.

  • jredheadgirl  On November 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    “But to respond to that challenge by not even trying to push where they can is still a legitimate basis for criticism of them, I think. Premature surrender to the anti-public-health ANTZ, without even trying, is not socially responsible action.”

    Good point Carl…though they would probably be arrested and hung out in a public square somewhere for even trying. What we need are more people like you knocking on the doors of the MSM, the FDA, and maybe even the courts.

    “Also, there was nothing in what I was writing about that had anything to do with the Czech Republic, other than the classically Stalinist conference center in which we met — I don’t think the Republic had any involvement with the meeting at all.”


  • E-cig believer  On November 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Can’t add too much to the argument in the way of scientific fact but as a user i’m so glad that i found electronic cigarettes. I was smoking more than a pack a day and now i’m down to less than 5. I’m an e-cig believer.

  • Jredheadgirl  On November 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    Unfortunately for me, e-cigs give me a headache and a horrible sore throat. Tar blocker/cigarette holders seem to work quite well for me personally. Everyone is different, right?

  • Roly Gate  On November 30, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Is there actually any point in engaging with the tobacco control industry in any way? What benefit is that thought to produce? People either get it or they don’t. When they are funded in ways that probably influence their work, they appear to conform to the required mindset more noticeably.

    Normally, it seems more effective to change something from within – but when the money says ‘think in a certain way or lose your position’, then change has to come from outside.

    There will be some interesting developments in the future: when e-cigarette use reaches 10% of smokers, then 20%. And when the smoking-related death rate starts to fall noticeably. It’s not all that far off, ten years can pass fairly rapidly…

    What kinds of things will TC be saying at that point? I suppose we could see what happened in Sweden for an example – but the TC industry in the US is massive by comparison.

    • Carl V Phillips  On December 1, 2011 at 7:34 pm

      Roly Gate, I think you sum it up well, though I think the narrowness comes more from fanaticism than funding. I was focused on the manufacturers wanting to deal with TC as if it were a stakeholder, but you have a good additional point that good people cannot change TC from within either. It will indeed be interesting to see what they say when their ostensible goals (public health) start to be achieved in spite of their efforts instead of because of them.

  • E Cigarette Supporter  On February 6, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    It is unfortunately so many electronic cigarette companies manufacture their products in China. It would be nice to seem some domestic e cig brands available.

    • Manfred Neuberger  On February 7, 2012 at 4:08 am

      E-cigarettes were invented by the tobacco industry for product diversification, improvement of the “cool” image of smoking, continuation of the role model for children, hooking adolescents, undermining control of smoking bans and as an alternative for quitting, keeping up the Pavlovian conditioning of smokers and making smoking cessation more difficult.

      • Roly G.  On February 7, 2012 at 5:12 am

        Nicotine control was invented by the tobacco control industry due to the need for control diversification, once safe alternatives to smoking became available and tobacco consumption had no more implications than coffee drinking. It maintains the ‘cool’ image of tobacco control in a world where it is increasingly redundant, and where it has to try and maintain its income by retaining control of media sympathy by using lies about the attractiveness of smoke-free nicotine to children, now that nicotine cessation is as pointless as tea or chocolate cessation.

        As the deathrate from smoking falls through the floor in enlightened countries, the corporate-backed murderers in tobacco control try to stem the tide of smokefree alternatives and maintain the deathrate to keep themselves in a job. These tobacco control murderers kill between 10% and 40% of those who die from smoking in Europe due to prohibited access to Snus. From 65,000 to 260,000 deaths annually in the EU are directly attributable to the pharma-backed tobacco control killers, who will eliminate any number of people to hang on to their jobs. Corporate murder on this scale hasn’t been seen since the cigarette manufacturers ruled. And all the time, the pharma front orgs talk about the ‘good’ they are doing; not since Stalin have we seen so much ‘good’ killing so many people. Pharma, their TC monkeys, and the cigarette industry: partners in lying and murder on a grand scale.

      • Carl V Phillips  On February 7, 2012 at 7:28 am

        Mr. Neuberger,
        I am guessing that you are part of the anti-nicotine industry and know the error of what you are saying (some of which Roly G points out, though he does not mention the little problem with your claim that we know the provenance of the technology, and it comes out of anti-smoking, not the cigarette industry), and thus you will not answer the question. But just in case you are genuinely misinformed, I would really love to know what led you to your belief. I know that some honest people have been effectively misled by the ANTZ industry, and am very interested in learning what turns out to be persuasive.


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