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By Simon Thurlow

Let us start by getting any conflicts of interest out of the way.

I am Simon Thurlow. I am an Information Security Professional. That means I spend most of my working days travelling around the UK and Europe designing or proposing Information Security solutions for clients of the IT company that I work for. I am married with 3 grown-up children (23, 22 and 18). I smoked for over 30 years. A few years ago I had a Myocardial Infarction (that almost succeeded in killing me) and was told that my smoking habit was to blame. I discovered eCigarettes as a way of quitting smoking.

I have NO ties with any Tobacco Company. I also have NO ties with any Pharmaceutical Company, though I have designed IT Solutions for several of them. I am an eCigarette advocate. I am not paid for my advocacy. All eCigarette advocacy that I do perform is paid for out of my own pocket, done for the benefit of my health, and for the benefit of other people’s health. I do this because I firmly believe in eCigarettes as a SAFER form of enjoying Nicotine.

The year 2014 will probably go down as the year that solid battle-lines were drawn – in Wales at least. Having had all of the trauma and disappointment of Article 18 of the TPD, drawn up behind doors and literally forced through as legislation, we all thought things could not get much worse.

Unfortunately, for Vapers in Wales this was the beginning of an even greater battle. The big difference to me however was that this was personal. This is MY country. I am a very proud Welshman. I speak the Welsh language, I am crazy about our national sport (Rugby) and a strong defender of what I see as my essential ‘Welshness’. I most certainly never considered myself political.

At the beginning of 2014, I was simply 18 months into my vaping journey. Sure, I was taking notice of the politics that raged throughout 2013 in the European Parliament on the subject of eCigarettes. I even participated in the BBC ‘flash-mob’ eCigarette protests that took place in January. But in reality, I was merely ‘following the crowd’. Yes, I knew that eCigarettes were life-saving devices (quite literally in my case) and that they were under threat. But that fight was being led by the well-known eCigarette advocates such as Dave Dorn, Lorien Jollye and Sarah Jakes. They were doing a damn good job at it, attending numerous events to fight the good fight and defend eCigarettes at every turn. Hell, I supported them as much as anyone. I quite happily supported in any way that I could. But I was very much a background figure - The shadow that nobody sees (to coin a phrase).

All that changed on 2nd April 2014 when, quite unexpectedly, the Welsh Government Health Minister – Mark Drakeford – announced the Public Health Consultation White Paper. Normally, I would not have taken any notice of such an event. But this White Paper sought to attack the very devices I consider to have saved my life. It attacked eCigarettes.

For the first time, the eCigarette battle was personal. This was a battle that was going to be fought on MY turf, in MY homeland … and the enemy was a man whose job description means he is ‘supposed’ to responsible for Health.

So, here started my journey from being a shadow, to one of having to stand in the spotlight, be noticed and make my voice heard (trust me when I state that I am normally very happy to sit in the shadows and not be noticed by anyone in this manner).

Like many in Wales, I simply had to respond to the Public Health White Paper. It sought to attack probably one of the greatest health innovations of the modern age. I immediately set about writing my response (which very quickly became an essay). I spent ages trawling the available evidence from the scientific and medical experts to show how much eCigarettes help with the long-term aim of reducing the smoking prevalence rate. Even at this stage, I was very much a figure in the shadows – simply fighting the fight from behind the scenes.

The event that changed all this was the unexpected eCigarette Summit in Swansea that was to be hosted by ASH Wales. I say unexpected because nobody had any idea it was happening until the local press suddenly started trumpeting (on the day of the Summit) the fact that Prof Peter Hajek was to attend the summit. Of course we all know that Prof Hajek is a firm supporter of eCigarettes. But that morning, Twitter was ablaze with fury about this eCigarette Summit taking place with NO vapers invited or consulted, and condemnation of ASH Wales for hosting such a event without the presence of any vapers. To be perfectly honest, I was probably one of the most vocal as we kept up a constant barrage of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ on ASH Wales Twitter feed.

Then it happened. ASH Wales relented and (probably reluctantly) sent out an invitation for any vapers to attend the afternoon session. Having been so vocal on Twitter, and because I lived less than 2 miles from the Summit venue, I suddenly realised that I had backed myself into a corner (or at least that was how I saw it) and was going to have to ‘put my money where my mouth was’ and attend. Nobody else was going to do it as it was too far away from any of the usual advocates. So I accepted the invite and announced to ASH Wales that I would be attending. Fortunately, I was able to garner some support from fellow Swansea vaper – Pete Dermody – who was also able to attend.

During the Summit, I found myself doing something that I would not have dreamed of doing previously. On hearing the complete rubbish being spouted by the so-called Public Health ‘authorities’, I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and started making my presence known. To my surprise, I quite visibly flustered Ruth Davies – Director of Public Health Wales – with my questions and assertions. It actually stimulated quite a fiery debate amongst the panel. It also got Pete and I noticed as we were approached by several Public Health people after the event.

Not long after, I was approached by the Save eCigs Campaign to ask if I would be prepared to front a Petition against the proposed eCig restrictions that were contained within the Welsh Government’s Public Health White Paper. I agreed to do so, but only on the condition that I would be actively involved (if I put my name to something, then I HAVE to be fully involved). This was agreed and the Petition was duly launched.

I now found myself as the focus for the campaign against the Welsh Government’s proposals. I spent the summer months publicising the Petition to every vaper that would listen. I constantly tweeted about it and contacted every Welsh vape-vendor I could find (courtesy of local EFVI co-ordinator – Rhydian Mann) to get them to help out. We even started gaining the support of several AM’s as a result of our Tweets.

The real ‘Eureka’ moment came when the Welsh Assembly debated eCigarettes for the first time in the Senedd. It was at this stage we found out who our true allies were going to be as first Byron Davies AM (Conservative) spoke out against Mark Drakeford’s plans for eCigarettes. He was quickly followed by Kirsty Williams (Welsh Lib-Dem Leader) as she cast many doubts over the proposals. But the real revelation was Darren Millar AM (Conservative & Shadow Health Minister) who showed an incredibly detailed depth of knowledge about eCigarettes as he made an impassioned speech against Drakeford’s proposals to ban eCigarettes from public spaces.

The Petition finally closed in September with 1300 signatures. The figure was far lower than I had hoped for, but more than enough to gain the attention of the Petitions Committee.

Unfortunately, when the date was given to formally present the Petition to the Welsh Government Petitions Committee in Cardiff Bay, I found I was unable to attend due to being summoned for Jury Service. So I had to ask somebody to step into my shoes and present the Petition for me. That person was Rhydian Mann.

Rhydian did a fine job at the presentation, talking with authority to the AM’s that were present and winning over hearts and minds. With the Petition presented, the real hard work was about to begin. With the help of Katie Knight (of the Save eCigs campaign) chasing AM’s for meetings, a series of meetings between vapers and AM’s have taken place. Getting meetings with AM’s is hard enough, but getting time off work (for us vapers) to meet with the AM’s is even harder. To date, Rhydian, Rob Heyes and myself have met with several AM’s to boost their knowledge of the science and efficacy of eCigarettes and gain their support. As a result we now know that we have the support of the Conservatives, Lib-Dems and Plaid Cymru. However, we are not going to sit on our laurels and will continue to meet with more AM’s from those parties to ensure we keep their support right across the board.

Labour AM’s are rather harder to pin down. They are extremely elusive as party loyalty ensures they do not rebel against Mark Drakeford. Unperturbed, we will continue to pursue meetings with Labour AM’s and if they refuse to meet with us then we are quite prepared to turn up at their surgeries and make them listen to us.

So what else has happened ?

Our petition was first heard by the Petitions Committee in early October 2014. The Petitions Committee Chair – William Powell AM (Lib-Dems) – proposed writing to Mark Drakeford to ask for a response. This happened.

Over a month later, Drakeford finally deigned to respond. However, his letter was very dismissive and simply reiterated the usual (easily refutable) rubbish about eCigarettes being a gateway to smoking, attractive to children etc. His response was the usual ‘may cause this, may lead to’ conjecture, but contained no evidence to back up his claims whatsoever.

So we (the Save eCigs campaign) responded to Drakeford’s letter. However, we responded with scientific evidence. We also made the demand to have a public debate in which we will ensure that Scientific/Medical experts are present at.

When the Petitions Committee next sat to consider our petition, we were surprised to see Ann Jones AM (Labour) sitting on the committee, as she does not normally sit on it. It is my assertion that she was parachuted onto it by Mark Drakeford, specifically to get our Petition closed down. To his immense credit, the Chair refused to allow the Petition to be closed down and persuaded the rest of the committee that the content of our response demanded a response from Mark Drakeford.

It is obvious from this state of affairs is that we have Mark Drakeford rattled and worried. We know he has not (and cannot) find credible evidence to back his ideological stance on eCigarettes. I believe he is also now aware that we are garnering support from the opposition parties against his puritanical plans. He also knows that we only need to persuade a small number of Labour AM’s to rebel against him and his plans will be in complete disarray.

So where does this leave our campaign?

Quite simply, I believe we are winning the battle. We are winning the hearts and minds of AM’s as we meet them. We have countered every single argument Drakeford has presented with sound scientific EVIDENCE. Finally, I believe that Mark Drakeford is finally coming to realise that we are a force to be reckoned with. We are not some ‘oiks’ from the Valleys with a grievance. We are, in fact, a learned body of people who know what we are talking about and can back up everything we say with solid scientific evidence.

So what are the lessons we have learned?

· Start engaging with politicians as early as possible. Arrange meetings with them. Present the evidence to them. Tell them your story and why the ecigs politics mean so much to you

· Organise a group of people who are confident enough to sit in front of the politicians and engage them with the facts (to counter the fiction we all hear). We all have jobs. This means that finding the time to meet with Politicians is hard. It won't work if just one person is doing it all, that person won't have the time (or be able to get the time off work).

· Take the fight to the Politicians. Don't wait to react to press releases. Be proactive.

· DON’T GIVE UP. This is worth fighting for and all the evidence is on OUR side

And the future?

The battle lines are clearer than ever and I suspect the first three months of 2015 will be a very significant period of time in Wales.

The upcoming General Election will focus the minds of MP’s elsewhere during the start of 2015. But this is not true of Wales AM’s. Welsh Assembly elections are not due until 2016, so AM’s will have more time to focus on the White Paper. The interesting part is how Labour AM’s will react to the eCig debate – especially those Labour AM’s who are sitting in marginal constituencies. The Proportional Representation voting system will probably assist most of those Labour AM’s to keep their roles – even if as Regional AM’s. But it is fair to say that any Labour AM that does not win his/her constituency will find their influence greatly reduced.

I believe that what happens in Wales will also be very closely watched by those in Scotland as the Scottish Parliament seeks to go down the same route.

2015 promises to be a very interesting year, a LANDMARK year. It is a year I am looking forward to with anticipation and enthusiasm. The fight is about to get interesting …. and I am about to go head-to-head with a Health Minister. Am I looking forward to it? You bet I am!!