Where did vaping come from? And where is it going? At the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction’s 2022 ‘Right Side of History’ launch event, Harry Shapiro and Professor Gerry Stimpson chart the course of vaping and tobacco harm reduction from its early history to its likely future.
Here’s a summary of what they had to say:
Harry Shapiro: The past & present of Tobacco Harm Reduction
In the 1950’s/60’s concern about the dangers of smoking became more widespread. In response, the tobacco industry ingeniously managed to convince people they could create a ‘safer cigarette’ by simply adding a filter.
Tobacco scientists knew this wasn’t the case. Secret attempts to develop safer cigarettes ensued, and lasted for decades, but ultimately failed to interest consumers as the products were clunky, difficult to use and tasted terrible.
The global era of tobacco harm reduction
Fast forward to 2006. Hon Lik, a Chinese scientist, developed what was the first commercially viable vaping device – easy to use, with good taste and the nicotine hit people were looking for.
Harry considers this the most significant innovation in nicotine consumption since the industrial cigarette rolling machine in the late 19th century.
It caused major disruption in the industry, and so we entered the global era of tobacco harm reduction.
“If one word sums up the impact of tobacco harm reduction across the tobacco industry it would be ‘disruption’.”
Much of this disruption was driven by consumers. With internet chat rooms, blogs and face-to-face interactions, people were now exchanging advice, asking questions, and creating noise around these new products.
The industry was also driven forward by those who saw the products and thought they could do better. Many users modified their devices (often in their garden sheds) to be better than the original products. These improved products were soon replicated by manufacturers.
Tobacco companies soon took notice. Not wanting to be left behind, they started their own development programmes and began buying up vape start-ups.
Fear, uncertainty & doubt: The war on nicotine
Politicians, lawmakers and regulators were caught off guard by these new products. As a result, they ended up developing bad policies on the back of bad advice.
This mainly stemmed from misinformation on the dangers of nicotine – which caused an ideological objection to recreational nicotine usage. Policymakers couldn’t understand and embrace the fact that safer nicotine products could allow people to use nicotine relatively safely, and play a part in dealing with smoking, death and disease.
This spread fear, uncertainty and doubt, and what Harry dubs a ‘war on nicotine’.
As a result of what has now been proven to be ‘junk science’, health professionals were unsure whether to recommend vaping to smokers.
This tragic irony meant many smokers assumed these products to be just as bad as cigarettes and stuck to smoking. This played straight into the hands of tobacco companies – who are still making millions from cigarettes.
Technology can be the solution
Harry finished by explaining that in the late 19th century, technology caused the problem of smoking by facilitating mass cigarette production. Yet now, new technologies are what can ultimately provide the solution in tobacco harm reduction.
Gerry Stimpson: The clock can’t be turned back on Harm Reduction
Gerry described himself and his cohort as a ‘rather motley band of people’ who have come from harm reduction in drugs, HIV, the criminal justice system, and the like.
This is something I have seen with other advocates. Vaping is part of the harm reduction movement that has been in place for years – and faced constant resistance.
There’s one key difference with vaping. This revolution in public health has been driven primarily by consumers, and certainly not by governments or ‘Big P, Big H’ (Public Health).
But it’s not an overnight revolution. The move towards large-scale adoption of tobacco harm reduction is going to be a long, complex uphill struggle. There’s been slow progress because of opposition and the negative atmosphere generated by organisations like the WHO and Bloomberg foundation. That’s partly why we still have the same number of smokers (1.1 billion) after 20 years of effort and huge expenditure.
Still, we have a massive body of evidence about the safety of safer nicotine products.
The future of tobacco harm reduction in 6 points
1. Remember, transformation takes time. It took about 40 years for cigarettes to displace other forms of nicotine use. In other areas of drug policy, it has taken 60 years.
2. Change will be driven by consumers, but we need to remember most vapers aren’t activists. Consumer advocacy groups will have a major role to play but will be limited by a lack of funds and doors being slammed in their face.
3. Governments need to get regulations right, but some are doing a lousy job. In the process, they are favouring incumbent products (cigarettes) over safer products and destroying the future.
4. Tobacco company transformation is generally slow – because most are happy to continue reaping the profits from cigarettes.
5. The WHO, backed by philanthropic funding, is on the wrong side of history when it comes to tobacco harm reduction. Its views are not grounded in the latest evidence and the body urgently requires a review.
6. The clock can’t be turned back. Innovation in products and consumer demand will continue to drive tobacco harm reduction forward. Ultimately, safer nicotine products WILL replace combustible cigarettes.