Dick Puddlecote Interview – Watching the WHO
Last week I mentioned the World Health Organization’s tobacco control conference, COP 7. This is where more than 180 countries and a lot of health groups meet to discuss new anti-smoking policies – except, recently, it’s been more interested in vaping. Sadly it’s a very secretive conference, but a few brave vapers did fly all the way to India to see what was happening. One of them was British vaper and blogger Dick Puddlecote, and I managed to speak to him at the weekend.
Me: Hi there. Have you recovered from India yet?
Dick Puddlecote: Just about, thanks!
Me: That’s good to hear. Anyway, can you tell me a little about yourself and how you got involved in vaping?
DP: Well, I started writing – it tended to be on libertarian issues, especially around lifestyle – around 2005, and then in about 2010 I noticed whispers that something was going on about electronic cigarettes. I was hearing that the MHRA (similar to the FDA, but it only deals with medicines) was planning to ban them, and I thought, well, if they want to ban them I’m on the side of not banning them.
The only problem was I didn’t have a clue about them, and I thought that if I was going to write about them I better learn something. So I joined a couple of forums and started answering questions. Just, like, “Can anyone tell me about these things?”
In the end, someone, Kate Narkybeast it was, said, “Well, I’ve got some spare kit. I’ll send you some if you like.” So she put a whole load of stuff in an envelope and sent it down to me, and it all came with little Post-It notes on it. You know: This bit goes here, put the liquid in here, an idiot’s guide. Obviously, this was a few years ago, so it was all cartomizers and things.
Me: Yes, we’ve moved on a bit since then.
DP: Anyway, I was using this kit to learn about it, and I knew a bit more about it and I was writing about it sometimes. But because I was using it I thought, “Hang on, these are quite good!” So I asked Kate where to get the stuff and she said, “Try Totally Wicked”. I bought exclusively from Totally Wicked for about two years then I learned about Vape Club, FastTech, other places. So I got some better gear, and gradually I found that I was vaping more and more, and smoking less and less.
Me: So you never planned to give up smoking?
DP: Not at all. I’ve never made a quit attempt. I enjoyed smoking and didn’t want to stop. I mean I still have tobacco around, and I can have a cigarette if I like. It did take me a while to completely switch. I think the people who switched overnight are probably the ones who really wanted to quit. Personally, I took it easy.
Me: So if you write about libertarian topics that probably explains why you’re doing so much about vaping now, because it seems like everyone’s trying to ban them.
DP: I write about what’s in the news. When they were fighting for plain cigarette packs I wrote about that all the time. Minimum unit pricing for alcohol, I write about that too. These things come around. Right now the big fight is over e-cigarettes, and that could last for years. And we can’t stop. Just let your guard down for a few seconds and they’ll start trying to ban things again. Like at COP 7, when a few countries – India, Thailand, Nigeria, a couple of others – suddenly tried to get the WHO to recommend a global ban.
Me: Oh yes, COP 7. That was one of the main things I wanted to talk to you about, seeing as you were actually there. You went to observe as a vaper, didn’t you?
DP: That’s right.
Me: How much did you get to see?
DP: Of COP 7 itself? Not much. It was the most disorganized conference I’ve ever seen. There were separate lines for registration, and I was obviously in the line for members of the public. Our line had its own desk, but they didn’t even start processing it until every single delegate and NGO had been booked in. The thing is, some of them were hours late. We were standing in line for three and a half hours before they started booking us in. It just showed total contempt for the public.
Me: It certainly sounds like it.
DP: It all comes down to their irrational hatred of the tobacco companies. They were so paranoid that some of the public might be linked to the cigarette industry that they treated everyone like second class citizens. I was standing in line with elected mayors from Brazil, people like that, and the delegates and staff looked at us all like we were complete filth.
In the end, they messed it up so badly that we missed the first hour of the conference, which turned out to be no big deal. It was awful. None of them seemed to have prepared anything; they just stood mumbling into the microphone. It was turgid. Really bad.
Me: So that was the first day. How was the rest of it?
DP: Oh, we didn’t get to see the rest of it.
Me: Really? Why was that?
DP: Because we all got kicked out.
Me: Kicked out? What did you do?
DP: We sat there for a few hours being gawked at by delegates. They kept a video camera aimed at us the whole time, sitting in our little roped-off area, and people kept coming up to take photos of us. Deborah Arnott from Action on Smoking and Health was scuttling around in a cheap suit, snapping away. Then, in the afternoon, they announced that the press and public would have to leave.
Me: Any idea who decided that?
DP: Well, they said it was “unanimously decided”, as if they had a vote on it, but it doesn’t work that way. Everything’s done by consensus at COP, and people don’t really want to speak up and disagree. So when someone says, “We need to kick out the media and public because they’re all tobacco industry spies,” nobody really wants to be the one who stands up and says, basically, “No, let them stay and spy on us.” It’s all pretty silly really.
Me: I thought the UN was committed to transparency?
Me: Well that doesn’t sound very transparent, but never mind.
DP: It’s what they always do. Exactly the same happened in Moscow two years ago.
Me: So what did you do for the rest of the week?
DP: Basically all the press and observers hung around the conference center or our hotels, waiting for someone to leak something. There were leaks all over the place, because a lot of people really aren’t happy with the way they clamp down on it, and then there’s tobacco control people who’re sympathetic to e-cigarettes. So there was basically information flying around everywhere.
The security was rubbish, as well. There was a group, Students for Democracy, that just walked in. They didn’t have passes, but they got hold of lanyards and wore them round their necks with the ends inside their shirts, so it looked like they had passes in there. Then they just walked right past the security guys, who let them through. Then they had a bit of a protest inside, holding up signs.
Me: It sounds like a total shambles.
DP: It was, but there was a lot more security outside. There were police and army all over the place with automatic weapons. They had sandbag bunkers set up, the lot. And then a load of Indian tobacco farmers turned up in buses to demonstrate against losing their incomes. Some got arrested and the rest were forced back on to the buses. Then the police escorted them about an hour’s drive away and told them not to come back or they’d all be locked up.
Me: I heard about that.
DP: Then of course, as soon as the farmers were all safely out the way, the delegates said they’d be happy to meet them and discuss their concerns.
Me: How convenient.
DP: Isn’t it just?
Me: Anyway, you said there was a lot of information flowing out. What sort of picture did you get of the conference itself?
DP: Well, it’s interesting how it works. You think they sit around and debate things, then maybe have a vote, but it’s not. They basically just negotiate. Someone has an idea and tries to persuade the rest to agree with it, then someone else decides they want some letters changed, and it all goes round and round. Apparently on Wednesday they were in there all night.
DP: And that’s why people thought the e-cigarette ban might really happen. India, Thailand and the others suddenly started pushing the idea, and there was always the risk that other delegations might just have thought, well, this is too much hassle, let’s just agree. You know, they think, fine, let’s just ban them, and if we find out later that they’re really safe we can change it then. But you know as well as I do, it never works that way. Once something’s banned it’s a hell of a job to get it unbanned again.
Me: That’s right. So what was actually decided? Has anything changed?
DP: It’s the same idea as before. But there’s that word, “Invites”. The WHO invites countries to regulate vapor products as medicines or tobacco, or to ban them entirely. And again, that’s an easy way out for any country that doesn’t want to spend too much time on the issue – just ban them.
Me: But that’s not a major change?
Me: It seems like a lot of effort to not change very much.
DP: That’s right. That’s the way it works. It took three days of negotiation to change basically nothing. It was a complete waste of time and money.
Me: Three days? Because it sounds like, although this was a tobacco conference, they spent most of it talking about vaping.
DP: Not all of it. They did discuss the tobacco farmers. They think they should help them find new jobs, like they should all be lumberjacks or something. But seeing how they were willing to come and protest, I think they’re happy enough being tobacco farmers.
Me: Sounds like it. Anyway, I know the USA has signed the FCTC but not ratified it. Were there any Americans here at all?
DP: There were some. People like the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, who’re another lot that seem more interested in e-cigarettes these days. When did you last hear them talk about actual tobacco?
And then there was this bunch called Corporate Accountability. They’re basically just some group that hate business; they don’t care about health, because they just want to bash industry. They’re really the enforcers at FCTC. If some delegation’s hesitating about something it’s Corporate Accountability who gang up and put the pressure on them. They make sure the delegates do what they’re told. You probably saw some of their tweets.
Me: I did.
DP: Anyway, as for US groups, even if they don’t attend COP they still love to quote the WHO on vaping. You know that the WHO wanted a report on e-cigarettes, and who did they hire to write it? Stan Glantz. So they got a report written by someone who knows nothing about e-cigs, but hates them, hates everything to do with nicotine, and he’s setting the agenda. And of course he’s a hero to a lot of groups like Tobacco Free Kids, so they love to quote him.
Me: So what happens at COP does matter to American vapers?
DP: Oh, definitely. It’s just handing more ammunition to the FDA and everyone else. “Oh look, the WHO say they’re really bad. We better regulate them more strictly.” And of course that’s what’s happening.
Me: Good point. Anyway, thanks for talking to me, and thanks for having gone all that way to keep us up to date on what’s happening.