Recent events attended by NNA have sparked considerable debate among the vaping community. Sarah Jakes (NNA Trustee) explains why "You've got to be in it, to win it".
Less than a year ago vapers were simply voices in the wilderness. The UK government was planning to classify all ecigs as medicines, and knowing that that would be open to legal challenge, was spearheading a push to also get the EU to do the same. Had they have been successful in Europe the legal challenge would have shifted from being simply about whether or not ecigs fit the definition of medicines under UK law (a position against which there were already various precedents in other countries) to one of EU mandates and proportionality. Any legal challenge would have been very much more complicated (and therefore expensive) much less certain, and in order to be successful, would have required a high degree of co-operation between affected parties in several EU states.
In November 2013 there was a turning point. Oliver Kershaw of ECF organised the ecig summit, which for the first time brought together the two sides of the debate including consumers. It enabled us to see who was on our side and who wasn't, and why. It highlighted the arguments we needed to address. But more than anything, it sparked a debate which is still raging, with both sides becoming ever the more vociferous.
What also happened was that some people on both sides started to listen to one another. People emerged who, whilst they didn't completely agree on some aspects of the debate, could see not only the benefits of the consumer market but the fact that it wasn't going to go away, because consumers were determined to keep it. A similar phenomena occurred in the European Parliament, and it happened because we suddenly became real to them.
The shift in vapers' position has been minimal. Vapers have moved from 'sod off and leave us alone' to 'we want regulation on safety, quality and content but we already have laws for that, just enforce them better'. On the other hand, in the UK there are individuals within the public health community who have shifted their positions massively, and they have had to go back to their organisations and work hard to change minds. That is no mean feat in the politicised world of public health and takes a great deal of time and behind the scenes diplomacy.
Make no mistake, one of the most powerful tools of that diplomacy is the ability to put real people, vapers, in front of the dissenters and have them tell their stories. But vapers have done more than just that. Wherever we have found ourselves in front of people who are against us we have been able to explain why things are not as they would have it. Why bans and restrictions would have an effect which is the complete opposite of that which they state is their aim. And we're doing that now with the backing of science, and the scientists who themselves have become supporters. It is a formidable combination.
It's likely that none of this would have happened if we hadn't gone out there and engaged with our opposers. Not only at the summit in November, but also at the various meetings and conferences that have occurred since. There is now fairly widespread acceptance in the UK of the fact that the consumer market must survive regulation if it is to be effective in offering smokers a viable choice.
There is however, still much work to do. Vapers in Wales are making good headway against a Government steeped in ideology, but need more support. There are still those who think that the theoretical potential for a new generation of "nicotine addicts" outweighs the interests of current vapers, and smokers who may want to make the switch in future. There are also people who believe that the idea of tobacco harm reduction has been usurped by the trans national tobacco companies in order to perpetuate duel use. They play down or completely ignore the arguments and scientific evidence which goes against their position. Those people have influence and their voices are heard at a national level. We need ours heard too, and in the same arena, not just shouting from the sidelines.
One thing that is certain in this debate is the fact that there are few certainties. Science tells us what is likely to happen based on what appears to be happening, but no one has a crystal ball. We cannot expect people to simply throw their doubts, no matter how trivial or unlikely they appear to us to be, out of the window. The best we can do is to ensure that our arguments are heard by policy makers, just as theirs are, and that the current science receives the consideration it deserves.
A year ago I could not have envisaged vapers being in a position where they could openly voice their arguments and directly challenge the perceptions of policy makers. That is now starting to happen in the UK. If we can achieve sensible and proportionate regulation in the UK other EU countries may well follow, but only if vapers in those countries keep up the pressure, find those who can help them and get their voices heard on a national level.
The next big battle is the WHO and its intention to classify ecigs as tobacco. What this will do (among other things) is make them a part of the problem for national governments to solve, as opposed to making them a part of the solution to the death and disease which few would argue smoking causes. We cannot challenge the WHO simply by shouting at them on social media, we have to persuade our governments to challenge them. That means engaging with those who are in government (make that appointment with your MP now, if you haven't done so already), and those who have influence within government. Some may see it as sleeping with the enemy, but in reality there are few enemies in the ecig debate, there are however plenty of people whose minds we have yet to change.
We've come a long way already, but really, we've only just begun.