Greg Conley Interview – Fighting the good fight for U.S. vapers
The debate over vaping in the USA is definitely heating up, and more and more states, counties and cities are trying to push through laws that would harm businesses and take away vapers’ rights. Luckily there are also a lot of people working hard to fight that, at state and national level. Last week I finally got the chance to interview one of the leading national advocates, Greg Conley from the American Vaping Association, who’s recently been on an epic pro-vaping tour of the country.
Me: Hi, Greg. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got involved in vaping?
Greg Conley: Sure! I got involved in vaping policy in August 2010, when I quit smoking with a vapor product. Almost immediately I started advocating for the products, because New York was proposing to ban all the ones that were already on the market. So I got involved through E-Cigarette Forum, encouraging them to take action against it. Then I joined CASAA as their volunteer legislative director. I did that for three years while I was getting my law degree, and working for a judge as her law clerk. Then about two and a half years ago I formed the American Vaping Association, to advocate for policies that let all responsible businesses to keep innovating and operating.
Me: Yes, obviously that’s something that’s definitely called for. It surprises me, in a way. I’m British and live in Germany, and I’ve always thought of the USA as being less regulated than Europe. The vaping mess is making me sort of reconsider that belief.
GC: Sure. Vaping is regulated in all sorts of ways throughout the United States. The trouble is none of that regulation includes any sort of product standards. It’s all about prohibition.
Me: That’s interesting, because a lot of what the FDA says about regulation is talking about ensuring safety. Aren’t they doing that? Or are they just making it harder to sell them?
GC: What’s basically happening is that from now until August 2018, as long as you don’t change your products, and as long as they aren’t dirty or inherently dangerous, the FDA has no real authority under their own rules. Other countries, even the EU, are setting actual product standards to weed out products that are an actual danger. They’re usually not doing it very well, but at least that’s what they’re trying to do. Nothing like that is happening here.
Me: So when you say businesses can’t change their products, they’re not allowed to make them safer?
GC: No, they’re not.
Me: Well, that’s unusual. Now, you said it’s all about prohibition. Where does that come in?
GC: It’s all about the predicate date – the grandfather date for which products can be sold without going through the FDA approval process. Right now that date is February 15, 2007, so over 99% of products that are on the market today will be banned in August 2018. That’s why the AVA and other organizations are fighting so hard to amend that 2007 predicate date.
Me: How is it possible to change the date?
GC: There’s an amendment in Congress just now. Once the election is out of the way and Congress comes back into session, they’ll be passing the Omnibus Funding Bill. The Cole-Bishop Amendment is an amendment to that bill, and it would change the predicate date to August 8, 2016 – the day the FDA declared vapor products to be tobacco. So we’re fighting to make sure the Cole-Bishop Amendment is passed as part of the bill.
Me: So everything that was on sale on the 8th of August this year would be grandfathered in?
GC: That’s right.
Me: Okay. I mean obviously that’s still not ideal, because it would freeze the market at this August, but that’s a lot better than freezing it in February 2007.
GC: Obviously yes. That’s the essential building block to eventually having vapor products regulated separately from tobacco. If it doesn’t happen we have the possibility of prohibition happening, because it’s very hard to bring in a new policy in the United States. But of course the long-term goal is to get rid of the tobacco designation and allow innovation to continue.
Me: Yes, innovation is essential. I started vaping a bit later than you – February 2013 – but I’ve still seem immense changes. So much has changed.
GC: That’s right. And what will happen is innovation will continue around the globe. Meanwhile the US will either be left behind, or people who do want modern products will have to go to the black market. And at no other time in human history have people had to go to the black market to get a safer alternative to a legal deadly product – cigarettes.
Me: That does seem backwards. There’s obviously a history of prohibition of other things, but at least in theory that was aimed at the dangerous products. This is going after the safer ones.
GC: Exactly. So we’re pushing for the Cole-Bishop Amendment, and we’re also protecting vaping at the state level. We’re giving assistance, including sometimes financial help, to organizations that are fighting the good fight at that level. Whether the legislative session is ongoing or closed, there’s always a lot of activity going on behind the scenes. It’s good to stay aware of that.
As well, the AVA just finished the Right To Vape tour, with SFATA, CASAA and Not Blowing Smoke. The tour went through twenty states, and we focused on the need to fight the 2007 predicate date.
Me: That sounds like quite a trip.
GC: It was. There were a lot of events. We had Congressman Douglas Hunter, a lot of local district directors, and even Senator Ron Johnson came to events. There was a lot of education going on, a lot of phone calls being made to legislators. We also got involved in North Dakota, where there’s a 76% wholesale tax on the ballot. We put up billboards there, and spoke to the media.
Me: I followed the tour on Twitter, but that doesn’t always give all the flavor of what’s happening.
GC: Yes, there was a lot going on. I only got back on Friday, so I’m recovering now. We were out nearly a full month; the tour started on October first, and we just got back on Thursday (October 27), so we were on the road 27 or 28 days. We did Vegas, two California locations, Portland, Tacoma, Wyoming… In Wisconsin we did two events with Ron Johnson. Two more in Ohio, and we finished up with one in New Jersey. And that’s not all of them.
Me: Wow, that’s a lot of events. How many miles did you cover?
GC: A long way! It was a few thousand miles.
Me: That’s one thing that still surprises me about the USA, and North America in general – how big it is. The first time I visited I flew from London to Las Vegas, and four hours into the flight I looked out the window and we were crossing the Canadian coast. I was like, “We already crossed the whole Atlantic and there’s still six and a half hours to go?”
GC: Yes, it’s a big place. We know a lot of vapers were disappointed the tour couldn’t visit their state, that we couldn’t visit North Carolina or Texas or Maine, but the country’s just too large. We could easily have spent all year on the road and still not visited everywhere we wanted to.
Me: Anyway, I know the tour coincided with the US launch of A Billion Lives and I saw that you managed to tie in a couple of events with it. How was that received?
GC: Very well! We concluded the tour at the ABL Philadelphia premiere, on Thursday night. They let us park our giant RV right in the front of the theatre, where the parking spaces are, and the theatre was sold out. Vapers were enthusiastic, there were a lot of people there with great stories. That was my fourth time seeing the film, but I still love to watch it.
Me: I’ve only seen it once, in Poland when it screened at GFN, but I was really impressed. Even after seeing the trailers, catching the whole thing was an eye opener.
GC: Yes, the story’s very well told.
Me: I know some vapers have been a bit annoyed at a few of the reviews. A couple I’ve seen certainly looked a bit biased. The way I see it, though, any publicity is good publicity.
GC: Exactly. I mean the film’s getting reviewed in places like the LA Times, and that’s a feat in itself. And although they haven’t all been four-start reviews, none have been terrible.
Me: No, they could certainly have been a lot worse. In any case, a lot of people are going to read those reviews and it’s going to generate conversations.
GC: That’s exactly it. It’s a movie, a theatrically released movie that’s being reviewed by major papers. And it’s questioning the link between big pharma and attacks on vapor products. That’s incredibly positive for us going forwards.
Me: Right. That connection isn’t some internet conspiracy thing anymore; it’s gone mainstream. It’s in theaters and being discussed by the mainstream media. Definitely a big step forwards. The reviews maybe haven’t all been outstanding, but they’re out there. It’s making vaping higher profile than it’s been before, apart from some of the crazy health scares.
Actually, that’s another thing I wanted to talk about. The UK media has been terrible with e-cigarettes, making some really alarming claims, and it’s had a serious effect on what the public think. Are you finding that too?
GC: Earlier this week I sent out a tweet to the American Cancer Society and others, saying that they have so much blood on their hands it’s going to take some high-grade soap to get it off at this point. That was because of a new study from the US, that found in 2015 something like 42 or 45% of Americans believe vaping is just as hazardous, even a couple of percent think it’s more hazardous, than smoking. That is appalling, and it’s not exclusive to the United States. It’s a worldwide problem. And it’s perplexing that it would be such a problem in the UK, where you have almost all your major public health groups lining up behind vaping.
Me: I think the problem is the antis are just better at using the media. Some of the supportive ones in the UK are speaking up more often now, but it’s still unbalanced.
GC: The tobacco control people have years of training in misleading the public on less hazardous alternatives. Particularly in the US, where they’ve been misleading on snus for longer than e-cigarettes have even been around. Part of their experience is having contacts at newspapers, being able to put out embargoed papers, hyping the latest journal articles.
Me: I’ve noticed that. Advocates struggle to even talk to newspapers, but the antis have long-established networks. They seem to be able to get articles published in major newspapers pretty much at will.
GC: Yes. Fortunately, the AVA has a good track record of being quoted in the US media, they contact us about stories, but it’s still a serious issue that so many journalists give the first and last word to tobacco control sources.
Me: And once bad news is out there it’s hard to correct it. People remember the scary story and never see the correction or rebuttal.
GC: That’s right. And it’s worse now, when people are sharing things, and a lot of the ones who see that never go beyond the headline.
Me: It’s hard to fight against that. Anyway, you’ve done the tour, which sounds like it went really well. Where do you go from here?
GC: The main goal is to get the Cole-Bishop Amendment through. But however that turns out, next year we have to make a huge effort at state level. Because every year the threats to vaping get larger. For example California’s Prop 56.
Me: I’ve read about that, and people I know in California are talking about it. Then there’s the Pennsylvania tax, and a lot of other things.
GC: Pennsylvania’s a real problem. There’s an amendment that would make the tax much more acceptable, but it keeps getting held up. Most prominently it got held up by a Democratic legislator called Mary Jo Daley, who refused to remove an amendment she placed on the bill to tax cigars. A lot of the other legislators don’t want to tax cigars, but they also don’t want to have a vote on it. We’re working on it.
Me: I live in the EU, and while the EU’s rules are stupid and restrictive, at least the same laws apply everywhere. In the USA it seems like every town can make its own rules. That must be incredibly frustrating, having so many things to fight. It seems like every time you start to engage with something, another problem appears somewhere else. Sort of legislative whack-a-mole.
GC: At times, yes, it’s frustrating. If the federal government actually produced product standards on the safety of e-liquids it would pre-empt states from acting in that area, but things like licensing, indoor bans, tax, they’re all decided at the state level. That’s just how it is in America.
Me: Well, good luck with it! I’ll let you get back to recovering from the tour now. Thanks for your time.