When Vanity Fair journalist Marie Brenner met Jeffrey Wigand in 1996, Jeffrey was accompanied by a bodyguard.
His reputation was under attack. Lawyers were trying to destroy him. He and his children had received death threats, one accompanied by a bullet.
One of the death threats read:
“We want you to know that we have not forgotten you or your little brats. If you think we are going to let you ruin our lives, you are in for a big surprise! You cannot keep the bodyguards forever, asshole.”
His story was so dramatic, it ended up being made into a major feature film.
Jeffrey Wigand’s crime?
An issue of trust
Many of us who advocate for vapers and vaper’s rights can’t even remember the bad old days. The days when tobacco companies lied, threatened and bullied to protect their right to sell lethal products. The days when they added even more lethal compounds to cigarettes to make them even more addictive.
Instead, we repeat simple facts.
“Vaping is safer than tobacco smoking.”
“It’s helped millions to quit smoking.”
“Many vapers have gone on to quit nicotine altogether.”
We struggle to understand why some anti-smoking advocates have not embraced vaping with open arms.
We often latch on to simplistic reasons for this opposition.
- The anti-vaping crusade is motivated by money.
- A blind hatred of nicotine means the anti-smoking lobby would rather people die than use something 95% less harmful than cigarettes.
- They simply don’t get or understand harm reduction.
These reasons probably have relevance for some groups, but I don’t think they tell the whole story.
Increasingly, I’m starting to think it is also due to a conflation of vaping with the tobacco industry and the hatred and distrust that industry engenders.
Many of the organisations and characters that are now opposed to vaping have fought the tobacco industry for decades. While these organisations have gained in size, resources and power, it wasn’t always that way.
For years the battle against smoking was a David and Goliath battle - except Goliath wore a suit, used expensive lawyers and was well versed in dirty tricks.
Let’s not forget that many older anti-tobacco activists will also have struggled hard to quit smoking themselves. The battle against addiction, which never really ends, can leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
Many will have also lost people they love to smoking-related diseases.
So when they believe (incorrectly) that the tobacco industry developed vaping, it’s obvious that they won’t trust it.
And it’s little surprise the tobacco industry’s claim that it will use vaping to end cigarette smoking are met with scepticism.
Playing into the tobacco industry’s hands
Let’s think about it from the tobacco industry’s perspective.
A new device comes along that is less harmful and less addictive than smoking.
Margins and profits are lower. New players come into the nicotine market. A huge number of vapers end up quitting nicotine altogether.
It could be a disaster for the big tobacco companies and combustible cigarette sales.
If they attack the new technology, their enemies will embrace it.
However, if they embrace the new technology, their enemies will attack it.
I don’t know if this went through tobacco executive’s minds, but they did embrace the technology, and vaping was attacked by the anti-smoking lobby.
Now there are vape bans and regulations in place all over the world that protect the sales of combustible cigarettes.
At the same time, tobacco companies have caused infighting and discord in the anti-smoking community, splitting the focus of people who were previously united in trying to end the harm caused by smoking.
Some of that has been achieved by supplying money to some of the very scientists and personalities who are dedicated to ending or reducing harm from smoking.
Not directly, but through a foundation at arm’s length, chaired by a previously highly respected anti-tobacco figure.
Deliberate or not, the move means that a number of the very scientists and experts who attacked the tobacco industry in the past are now ostracized, silenced, excluded, harassed and bullied by their former friends and allies.
It all feels very much like a trap which anti-smoking activists (and vaping advocates) are walking into.
If so, it’s working, with cigarette sales stabilising or increasing as vaping sales fall.
What to do?
That sub-heading might suggest I have some simple solutions to the complex problem outlined above.
But I do think that the hatred and distrust people have for tobacco companies should influence the way vaping advocates think, act and communicate.
Many vaping advocates launch bitter, sometimes personal, attacks on the anti-vaping crowd, born of frustration.
An attempt to ban something that may have saved your life will inevitably cause great anger.
However, these attacks serve no purpose other than to vent that anger, and are only likely to further entrench already hardened attitudes.
I do think it is important to:
- Emphasise that vaping wasn’t invented by the tobacco industry.
- Emphasise the harm vaping causes to tobacco sales and profits.
I also think that it’s important to ensure the independent vape industry and independent vape organisations survive.
That’s partly because, if there is any chance of communication between vaping companies and the anti-smoking lobby, it has to come from non-tobacco companies.
But it’s also because vaping should not be left to the very companies who stand to gain the least from its success.