The State of Vaping in the UK – A Battle Scarred Veteran’s View
IBVTA Chairman, Fraser Cropper, originally wrote this piece for Vaped and has kindly given us permission to republish it.
Running a company such as Totally Wicked is often unlike running a normal business; this is primarily due to the products we manufacture and sell, and ‘opinions’ that can often have a profound effect on the understanding of what our products are, and why we exist to serve our customers. Across the past 10 years or so, vaping has travelled a very challenging path to what we justifiably believed was a position of acceptance in the UK, often grudgingly for many, but acceptance nonetheless. Businesses have matured along with the range, complexity and quality of the products that are available. This maturity, albeit lagging often a long way behind, has been matched with a growing appreciation of vaping’s enormous potential, as demonstrated through the experiences of millions of ex-smokers. Indeed, the UK is a world leader in not only the proportion of ex-smokers who have found vaping as their gateway out of smoking’s grasp, but also in the relatively positive environment UK vaping finds itself.
Having personally sat on the proverbial bronco’s back for 9 years, it has been a bruising journey. Why? Because vaping’s journey across these years has vicariously exposed me and many others to a perspective on the world that is hard to reconcile once it has been witnessed. Vaping exists only because smoking exists; this is a fact based on the personal story of vaping’s inventor, Hon Lik, but also a fact based on simple logic. It is extraordinary to believe a consumer product as dangerous as smoking exists yet is so ubiquitously available and openly sold in every country across the globe. One of the principal arguments used against the total prohibition of smoking sales, is personal choice. Simply summarised, no longer can smokers or potential smokers not understand the risk they are exposing themselves to and that they do so of their own free will and volition. Whether you accept this logic or not, or your thoughts on the role of the State versus personal responsibility, it is however a fact, that you can buy these extremely dangerous products most anywhere you care to shop. When vaping first emerged, it is true to state that the risks that vaping posed were pretty much unquantified.
However, vaping established itself in those early years because the early users correctly and simply concluded that even without specific evidence to back up, it was surely impossible, given the concept and the ingredients, for vaping to be anywhere near as dangerous as smoking. Of course, they were correct and as the years passed not only has the scientific research demonstrably proven that vaping is orders of magnitude safer than smoking, but also there is the enormous sump of anecdotal evidence of tens of millions of ex-smoking vapers, that is probably the most compelling of all.
A good friend of mine and business colleague, coined a very simple yet powerful pithy retort to vaping’s detractors: “…there is never a situation where it is better to smoke than vape…”. It is the essence of this basic statement that is so powerful. As established, vaping exists only because smoking does; it is profoundly safer than smoking and has proven itself as the most successful smoking quit aid ever invented. Millions no longer smoke as a consequence, and the health dividend associated to vaping’s success is up there with some of the most important public health discoveries in the modern era. A good news story if ever there was one! Well, no, as it transpires.
I will come onto the recent matters related to cannabis oils in the USA shortly, but even though the UK has seen such remarkable positive change in its smoking statistics, the level of misunderstanding and mistrust of vaping continues to be fundamentally at odds with the positive facts. The media have been much maligned across recent years, from the disgraceful behaviours of the News of the World phone tapping, through to recent and persistent accusations of political bias and flawed journalistic rigours; you take your pick where you stand.
However, when we consider how vaping has been treated, I believe it is beyond reasonable doubt or margin for error that there has been a considered and concerted editorial bias across multi-media and news outlets to malign and undermine vaping’s credibility. I would also claim that if it were not for some brave individuals in positions of influence and credibility who have spoken out positively and powerfully across the years, then this malignant media onslaught may well have been successful in stemming or indeed preventing vaping’s establishment in the UK and across Europe.
Why is vaping not given the objective and fair reporting it would apparently deserve?
The generous answer, may well be found in the understanding of what smoking is to both the smoker and the ‘never smoked’. When you smoke you wrestle with some often very challenging tensions. These are different for every smoker. For me, having smoked since a teenager, I eventually gave up 20 years ago aged 33; it was a struggle across most all of my nearly 20 years of smoking. Like all smokers we know we are damaging our health, yet we continue to smoke. We tell ourselves platitudes such as, we enjoy it, we can stop at will, it calms me etc, but behind most of these is an acceptance that we are addicted to a habit that is terribly difficult to wrestle free of. I did eventually, and it is one of my most important life achievements. However, if you have never smoked, it is easy and logical perhaps to see smokers as deserving derision and castigation due to their ‘irresponsibility’, ‘lack of will power’, ‘selfishness’ etc. Vaping exists because of smoking, and 94% of vapers are smokers or ex-smokers.
Therefore, understandable perhaps to a ‘never-smoked’ for the 2 things to be conflated as just another form of the same habit. Whilst understandable, it is not however a legitimate perspective for a paid journalist to be so lazy and subjective as to compose their work through this pejorative lens. Yet they do, have done routinely across the years, and continue to do so. Whilst in part it can be understood as lazy and poor journalism written under the pressure to produce headline grabbing copy, its consequences are unfortunately very dangerous. For every smoker who has been prevented from trying vaping, or a vaper who has lost confidence in vaping and returned to smoking because of this media misrepresentation, there is an individual whose life expectancy has been adversely affected by this bias. Even more reprehensible are those journalists that knowingly misrepresent and actively pursue the maligning of vaping; you will have examples yourself and there are unfortunately many.
So we come to the USA.
Having owned and run a vaping business in the USA for 10 years, I have first hand knowledge of how different the USA vaping scene is to that in the UK. Whilst vaping grew rapidly in the USA across its formative years to be the largest national market, with upwards of 10 million vapers, the background was being shaped towards the eventuality that has slowly transpired across recent years. The USA market for open system devices, those devices that are very much the norm for UK vapers, is being progressively shut down by unnecessary and grossly onerous legislation. This is being driven ostensibly by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, behind the scenes it is the very poorly hidden hand of large corporate influences that is driving not only the legislation but also the narrative.
There is not the consistent and coherent counter-narrative of respected and relevant leaders that there is in the UK to hold to account these agendas, and only the poorly represented vapers, ever more isolated and negatively portrayed, left to fight what is now a battle lost. What will be left in the USA is a quasi-tobacco cartel of vaping products that will only be sold alongside tobacco products in convenience stores across the country. You see, vaping will not have been formally banned, but it has been so neutered by the loss of vaper orientated businesses that only products developed, owned and marketed by tobacco businesses will be sold. The owners of those businesses have no ambition to compete successfully with their primary revenue streams, and slowly but surely the USA vapers will be starved of relevant and accessible products, such that we have effectively prohibition by stealth.
The closing down of the USA market has not only been achieved by corrupt lobbying by tobacco and pharma’ companies, but also by the media’s willingness to carry an ever more elaboratively woven distortion of vaping. Unlike in the UK, where there still is a strong association to vaping’s justified position as a counter to smoking, in the USA, very cleverly and insidiously for a number of years, vaping has been progressively characterised as a ‘culture’ or ‘choice’ dissociated from smoking. Why is this clever? Because if you can dissociate from the real threat, then vaping is ever more vulnerable to the arguments of addiction and child uptake, etc. It is these arguments that have been used furiously against vaping, which are used to legitimise the punitive legislation and justify its effect, and all the while smoking gets its free ride. Crazy, yes, but no conspiracy theory; just a run of the mill conspiracy fact. As is often the case in life, do not follow the words, follow the actions and benefits. The beneficiaries in the USA are the corporate behemoths of tobacco and pharma’, working in sinister cahoots to extract benefit from its victims, all of us who smoke or have ever smoked.
It is against this background, that recent news out of the USA has been ‘formed’. At the time of writing, it is believed that 29 US citizens have died and around 1300 been hospitalised by the use of vaping devices to deliver illicit cannabis vape liquids. Unfortunately, USA’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for over 6 weeks chose to blame the delivery mechanism rather than the substance that was being delivered, referring to symptoms of a mysterious “vaping-related lung disease”, rather than what it actually seems to be; lipoid pneumonia caused by the inhalation of lipids. These are not the same as nicotine containing vape fluids regulated and sold in the UK, these are fluids which are not suitable for inhalation, and contain products which were known to have been dangerous to health if inhaled, but were sold and used as such.
Firstly, this is a significant matter that deserves coverage, and anyone who has ever considered vaping as a method to imbibe cannabis oil should be aware of this significant risk. Whilst the UK does not have the same cannabis culture as the USA, and UK vaping products are regulated appropriately when it comes to fluid quality and ingredients, UK citizens needed to be made aware of the happenings in the USA to ensure such tragedies do not occur here. However, the reporting of these deaths was so inaccurately represented that two things happened. Firstly, the important message to warn about the risk of inhalation of cannabis oil was lost in the lamentable reporting. There is a fundamental responsibility of our media to report accurately, clearly and as widely as possible, risk and dangers to protect citizens. In this case the UK and international media failed en masse.
Why? Because they were more seduced by the secondary reporting opportunity. This was to target the reporting as a ‘vaping’ story and connect all the risk, dangers and consequences of inhaling lipid containing cannabis fluid to vaping in its totality. We read of ‘vaping deaths’ and the ‘dangers of vaping’. These reports not only failed to warn against the legitimate cannabis oil risk, but they summarily blamed vaping and often vaping alone for these deaths. It is akin to blaming the manufacturers of syringe needles for an intravenous heroin abuse epidemic, not the drug dealers.
Too harsh an analogy? No I do not think so. This in part may have been just lazy journalism, or more sinister in knowingly misreporting to cause significant damage to the fragile reputation of vaping. The reasons, whatever they may be, do not excuse or justify the material effect that this misreporting has had on the confidence of vaping in the UK. Whilst more recently we are seeing more accurate and balanced reporting that is separating and making the correct distinctions, the damage to many smokers’ confidence in making the switch has been significantly undermined, and likely fewer will make the move to vaping than would have otherwise.
The maxim of “…there is never a situation where it is better to smoke than vape…” needs today to be ever move exposed and assured than before these events in the USA.
My apologies if this piece was rather longer then perhaps it could have been. However, I wanted to write these words, primarily for our Totally Wicked customers, to place on the record our perspective of recent events, but just as importantly the longer view of where we have come from and the context for the future of what should be a very positive position for vaping in our society. We have seen that those with the voice often and wilfully misrepresent and undermine the potential and credibility of vaping as a remarkable tool to give smokers a real choice.
It is often left to vaping businesses, and their reasons for existence, their customers, to carry the torch for these remarkable products. No more powerful weapons in breaking through these challenges are the always compelling personal journeys each one of us has made from being a smoker to a life free of smoking. When I took responsibility for leading Totally Wicked almost 7 years ago, I understood the responsibility, not only for continuing to develop our business, but just as importantly to accept our responsibility for our sector and the reputation of not only our products, but whenever possible vaping as whole. I am humbled every day I have the privilege of speaking with you, our customers, and being able to share and support your individual journeys away from smoking. I am very lucky to have been involved with such a great business that every day delivers the product and services that have helped so many leave smoking behind. The last few weeks have been very disappointing in undermining so much of what has been achieved collectively in the UK.
Ultimately though, nothing has changed. Vaping is still the most effective way of quitting smoking, its risks are magnitudes lower than smoking, and it gives choice and freedom to smokers who previously had so few options.