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Vaping in Ireland – Gillian Golden interview

Most of the action in the e-cigarette debate is taking place in the USA and UK. Britain is moving towards a pro-vaping position, with all the major health organizations recognizing its potential as a harm reduction technique and the National Health Service recommending e-cigs to smokers. The USA is still going down the prohibitionist route, with every level of public health treating vaping as just one more part of the “tobacco epidemic.”

When it comes to vaping and its place in society, the USA and Britain are pretty clearly on different sides. What’s it like to be stuck in the middle, though? That’s exactly the position Ireland’s in – with close cultural links to both sides, is Ireland going to align with one of them or will its famous creative, independent streak come up with a distinctively Irish position? I asked Gillian Golden, the tireless administrator of the Irish Vape Vendors Association, what she thought.

Me: Hi, Gillian. So, can you tell me how you got into vaping?

Gillian Golden: I got into vaping in 2012, when I picked up a cigalike.

Me: What made you do that?

GG: I picked it up out of curiosity, really, and with the belief in the back of my mind that it wouldn’t be any good, and that it wouldn’t serve as a replacement for my smoking. And then twenty-four hours had passed before I realized that I hadn’t smoked.

Me: And that was just a cigalike?

GG: Yes, a rechargeable one with cartos. So I went online to see if anybody else had ever heard of these things, not realizing that by that stage, even in 2012, there was a really vibrant and active online community of people that had all done the same thing as me. And then, I think it was within two weeks, there was going to be Ireland’s first Vapefest event, which was being organized by an Irish vaper called Shane Dowling who had just been to the UK one and brought that idea back here.

Me: That was pretty good timing.

GG:  It was. So I went along and there was this community of really friendly and welcoming people, a few vendors’ tables set up, loads of different products, and I bought my first starter kit.

Me: That must have been a surprise, after your cigalike.

GG: Well, I had had some discussions online with Irish vapers before I went, and they were telling me about the different kinds of devices. They’d given me the same advice that I would give to a new vaper now, which is to go and look at these devices in person and find one that fits you. Because it’s such a visceral thing, holding it in your hand and using it like a cigarette, it does take experience of the products in person to learn what’s going to work for you.

Me: Yes, it’s a very personal thing.

GG: It is. I was so glad I went there, not just to see the devices, but also to talk to other vapers about their experiences. And then there was a table where they had liquid samples. At the time I was kind of struggling with the tobacco flavor of the cigalike, and then when you realize that there’s all these other flavors out there they pique your interest, they keep the experience fresh…

Me: They actually taste like what they’re supposed to taste like, unlike artificial tobacco…

GG: I think I needed flavors at the time. At that stage I knew this was going to work for me, and I didn’t want to smoke, so whatever was the opposite of a tobacco flavor, that was what I wanted. And that was in September. I went on holiday in November and I was seeing the benefits of the switch already.

Me: Really? What did you notice first?

GG: Well, I was staying on the top floor of a five-story apartment building in beautiful Bologna, and I could walk up the stairs without getting out of puff! I think now, that I was in denial about the effect smoking was having on me up to then, and I was secretly thrilled that I could walk all the way up the stairs and not have that smoker breathlessness.

I used to put that sort of thing down to just being unfit, but really, you know the difference between getting out of breath because you’re unfit and getting out of breath because your lung capacity isn’t what it should be.

Me: Yes, that’s right, even if you don’t want to admit it to yourself.

GG: Yes. Then, after that, I started getting interested in the policy debates. The debate on the revision of the Tobacco Products Directive was going on at the time and I tried to speak to my local Members of Parliament, Irish MEPs etcetera etcetera. And then some Irish vendors started setting up a trade association, which turned into the Irish Vape Vendors Association, so I was asked to come aboard and run that.

Me: Why did they ask you, out of interest? Because of your enthusiasm, your natural charm…?

GG: (Laughs) I think it was because I understood how these proposed laws were going to impact vaping. I have a background in retail and customer service, and, from my point of view, I understood that, for vaping to get where it should be, it was going to need independent shops and businesses at the forefront of speaking out for it. Because what had shocked me, watching what was happening in Brussels, and knowing what I did about vaping, I could see the difference between what was sound science and some of the arguments put forward against vaping. These weren’t tobacco products, so why were they being included in a tobacco regulation? I expected to see this huge surge of opposition to what the TPD was trying to do.

Me: Yes, I think I expected the same. I was sure that the medical and public health communities would see where the science was going and step in. But they never did; they just let it happen. Or they actually supported it.

GG: I think what shocked me was that the people who were talking about the Tobacco Products Directive, certainly in Ireland, it seemed that they hadn’t done proper due diligence on the policy. That’s what I found so frustrating – not only the science but also the public messaging in Ireland, was so opposite from what I was able to find out from Lynne Dawkins, Konstantinos Farsalinos, all these scientists… it seemed that vaping and vapers was the little guy, and because they weren’t being listened to, were going to lose out, and that’s what drove me to come on board with the IVVA.

My view from the start was that these businesses, all these entrepreneur vapers who started independent vape companies, took a huge risk in Ireland. It was right after the economic crash and they took a risk in opening these businesses. And the medical community, the public health community, they’ve tended towards misrepresenting the position of these people and their companies. So that’s something I’ve tried very hard to turn round.

Me: Misrepresented in what way?

GG: Misrepresented who they are, and what their goals are, their position on regulation. I haven’t heard once, in four and a half years, any vape company reject the notion of regulation. What I have heard is that the regulations that have been put on the industry aren’t the right ones. But that’s not the same as saying that any vape company doesn’t believe in regulation, because that’s not true.

Me: Good point. They just want the right regulation.

GG: And also they’re misrepresenting the motivations of the people who started the companies. If you look at the trajectory that a small business in Ireland has, you might have tried every quit aid on the market and nothing worked for you. Then you find this vapor product that’s like the Holy Grail. It gives you everything you want from smoking, but only a tiny fraction of the risk of smoking. You’re following all the scientific research on it, you know it works, and you want other people to have the same opportunity to switch. So you open a business. You open it in a time of flux for the industry, at an economically depressed time in the country. You help your neighbours, their co-workers, all find something they’d rather use than smoking, that’s more pleasurable than smoking, and the research is telling you you’re doing a good thing. Then you turn on the radio and you listen to people in respected positions who just disregard what you’ve done in your community.

And they’re projecting the idea that you’re doing harm. But in fact what you actually are is providing a kind of public health service by giving people an alternative to smoking. You’ve opened a business that’s a boon to your local community. You’re employing people, paying taxes to the exchequer, investing in better and safer products. You’re doing all the things they tell you to – “Stop smoking, be entrepreneurial, employ people.” Then you hear people maligning you.

Me: When, really, you’re pretty much being a model citizen.

GG: That’s right. If there was meaningful dialogue going on from the outset, they’d hear that our goals really aren’t all that different. We want to provide something that gives smokers an alternative.

Me: Do you think the fact you have similar goals might be an element of their hostility? Maybe they see you as competition – competition that’s doing a better job than they are.

GG: I don’t think there’s as much of that in Ireland as there may be, say, in the United States. There is, unfortunately, a certain distrust of industry in Ireland, and that distrust gets projected to the public. The idea, I think, is that anyone that makes money from a product must be misrepresenting that product. And, in Ireland, up until very recently, there hasn’t been much acknowledgement of international evidence.

Me: So where have they been pulling their evidence from? Or do they just not bother with evidence?

GG: A lot of what they talked about back then came from American academics – American academics who support a more prohibitionist stance, I think is a diplomatic way of putting it. The problems really stem from the fact that we’ve never considered nicotine outside of smoking, because we’ve never had to.

Me: Yes, I think that’s a very common problem. It’s a very close association. I mean look at a smoker’s hand and we say, “Oh look, yellow stains, that’s a nicotine stain.” But it isn’t! It’s tar, not nicotine, but we think, “Smoking, nicotine, same thing.”

GG: Another myth that I see a lot in Ireland is that nicotine is the most addictive drug in the world. Now, we know from studies of NRT that that is not the case. And we know from Jean-Francois Etter’s and others’ work that e-cigarettes are no more addictive than NRT. But we have a long way to go with the Irish public perception of nicotine.

Me: You never hear it from health professionals?

GG: Well, as I paint this big picture, I must also say that there are people in the public health and medical communities, here in Ireland, who do understand vaping. There are doctors, there are cardiologists, community care workers, nurses etc, who do recommend vaping to smokers. But because of the policy in their organizations, in their institutions, it almost seems at times that they can’t be seen to do it in public.

So the message that sends the public is that their individual doctor might tell them, “Switch to e-cigarettes,” but when they look at these organizations they’re seeing a very different message. And I think that’s confusing them. They’re seeing position statements that haven’t been updated since 2013, that still say things like “There’s a danger to bystanders,” or “We don’t know what’s in them,” or “They contain heavy metals.”

The big problem, really, is the concept of relative risk. We have all sorts of public health messages in Ireland that do mention relative risk, but for some reason that stops when it comes to vaping. It’s an approach based on abstinence. The safest way to do something is not to do it; if you give people a safer way to do something they might do more of it, and that’s uncomfortable for people.

What has been really heartening, though, is the public health response to the HPV vaccine. They’re telling the public the relative risks, giving them accurate information, dispelling myths. It’s frustrating at times, because if you were to design a public information campaign on vaping and harm reduction, that’s how you would go about it.

Me: Well, at least they do understand harm reduction.

GG: Absolutely, so it’s been somewhat disappointing that the same understanding hasn’t been extended to smoking and vaping. But that’s changing.

Me: Do you think there’s going to be any progress?

GG: I think there already is. With the recent reports coming out of the UK it has given people the impetus to seek out the research themselves. And also our Health Information and Quality Authority published a draft assessment of smoking cessation interventions and included vaping and its use for harm reduction. It’s mainly looking at the effectiveness of vaping in a clinical setting, what the state should provide as a way to quit smoking. The interesting thing for us that came out of it though, is that it talks about the providing of balanced risk information. It’s saying that people can’t make an informed choice unless they’re given balanced, accurate information. So that was very important, because that’s been one of the biggest hurdles in Ireland.

The other thing that was really interesting is that it made cost and effectiveness projections based on Ireland having a similar uptake of vaping to what the UK has now. What we in the IVVA are asking is how that’s going to happen when Ireland’s policies are so far behind the UK’s, especially England’s? We have public use bans, a ban on vaping in any hospitals and health facilities. That’s telling people that there’s no difference between smoking and vaping, so why would a smoker consider switching?

Also, the government has on its current parliament session timetable a bill to bring in a licensing system for retailers. But if we are aiming to get the same uptake of vaping as the UK, the industry needs to grow. Is licensing going to put independent companies off opening more vape shops?

Ireland is also keeping the TPD’s six-month delay on letting new products on the market, so how would we expect vaping to attain the same popularity, and Irish retailers to grow their businesses, when smokers in Ireland would need to wait six months to get access to what everyone in the UK or France could buy?

And then of course there’s the proposed EU harmonized excise duty. What would we be saying to smokers if we introduced a tax as part of another tobacco products directive revision, (Directive 2011/64/EU) which would financially disincentivise them from switching? And to vape businesses, subjecting them to yet another cost and administrative burden?

I think overall our government is taking a precautionary approach, but at least there does now seem to be an understanding that e-cigarettes are cost-effective for the state, and they’re a good choice for smokers. The problem is, that has to be supported by a suite of policies that allows vaping to flourish, and at the moment, in Ireland, we’re not quite there yet. The IVVA will continue to work on behalf of the Irish independent vape industry to get those policies delivered.

Me: It does sound like you have a bit of an uphill struggle there. I’ve seen some incredibly hostile statements from Irish politicians and activists, so frankly I’m impressed that you’ve managed to get some movement in the right direction. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, and keep up the good work!

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