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The World Health Organisation (WHO), in conjunction with the Catalan Institute of Oncology (ICO), held a symposium on ecigs.  They only invited speakers who were hostile to harm reduction for smokers, as Sarah Jakes reports.



When you spend as much time as I do listening to people like Robert West, Peter Hajek, Gerry Stimson and Clive Bates it's easy to think that the war over the use of safer nicotine products is all but won. There cannot still be people out there seriously trying to deny their arguments, and the science that backs them up can there? Well yes there can, and many of them were on the speaker list at the Barcelona symposium.

I decided to attend the symposium in order to learn. I wanted to hear and understand the counter point of view. I wanted to know why these intelligent, educated people, many of them leaders in their field in their respective countries, thought e-cigarettes so dangerous that they must be banned and restricted into oblivion. I wanted to know how they balanced this with the risk of harms that such restrictions could inflict, not only on individual health but on population health if vapers returned to smoking and smokers never discovered vaping as a result.

To be fair to him, the keynote speaker, Simon Chapman, did actually seem to acknowledge the fact that such risks existed. However this did not prevent him from ridiculing the tobacco harm reduction argument and even naming those whom he apparently felt were clearly too... I don't know, stupid (?) to see things his way. As Peter Hajek received a roasting for his quite brilliant Mike Russell Oration given at the Global Forum on Nicotine in Warsaw it became clear that this was personal, and as we were told about all of the rude emails Professor Chapman and his colleagues had received, it became ever more obvious that he wears disagreement with his opinion as a badge of honour. This is not about health, or lives, for him it's all about him.

It's difficult to imagine anyone being ideological enough to eclipse Simon Chapman, but Martina Pötschke-Langer (German Cancer Research Centre) did that with knobs on. In a presentation style reminiscent of those terrible US 'lifestyle inspiration' performances (down among us so she could "connect" rather than from behind the desk) she delivered a blistering display of...well, her own opinion. She showed slides of 2nd and 3rd generation devices, many of the former in pretty colours and patterns, and asked: "what adult would want those?". Me apparently, since I own most of them and had at least 5 of them with me.

Martina then went on to flavours and with the backdrop of a slide showing numerous fruit, mint and candy flavours (including the now ubiquitous gummy bear - bubblegum is no longer fashionable in TC circles - possibly the McKee effect) proclaimed that with the possible exception of tobacco, all of these flavours are for children. I waited for someone to point out perhaps the Farsalinos study on the importance of flavours to adults, or the ECF survey which showed the same, but no joy. All we were going to get was Martina's opinion which was supported by nothing at all. My attempt to raise this point in questions afterwards failed, because I am apparently invisible (or maybe they'd been reading my tweets).

By the end of Martina's presentation I had pretty much abandoned all hope of learning anything much at all. Esteve Fernández recounted an experiment in which they had driven around the block a few times with a vaper in the car and measured particulate levels in the air inside the car. Apparently there were particles very much smaller than those allowed by WHO, whatever that means. Particles of what?

After lunch (spent at the Hesparia Tower Hotel with friends because it was air conditioned and vape friendly) we were treated to the now familiar 'e-cigarette marketing and the influence of the tobacco industry' presentation from Marisa de Andrade, followed by a rundown of the TPD by Francisco Rodriguez (Spanish smoking prevention) in which he pointed out with some enthusiasm that countries could go further than the requirements. There followed a panel discussion, but disappointingly no further opportunity for final comments from delegates.

So what did I learn?

1) The anti e-cigarette argument pretty much boils down to "we don't know yet" and "it's obvious, innit".

2) They don't go much on science. They wilfully ignore anything counter to their views whilst waiting for science that backs them up.

3) The right of people to choose a less harmful product doesn't even appear on their radar let alone outweigh the unsupported theoretical risks.

4) Barcelona is very hot this time of year.