Monthly Archives: January 2016

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The face of Big Vaping

Category : rants , vaping

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

– H.L. Mencken

So on Saturday I got pointed to this article, which purports to tell us how “Big Vaping” is spreading cynical misinformation on behalf of the tobacco industry, presumably to hook a new generation of nicotine addicts or some other dire outcome. The article, frankly, sent my blood pressure through the roof. Hosted on Vox.com, a sort of internet rest home for people who’d like to be journalists but have the investigative abilities of a stunned whelk, it’s written by a talentless oxygen thief named Julia Belluz. Julia, apparently, is a health correspondent, although as she’s the health correspondent for Vox.com that’s about as impressive as saying she’s supreme ruler of her own underwear. She’s also, according to a claim on her Twitter profile, an “evidence enthusiast”. Well, actually, I’m not so sure about that. Because if she had any understanding of what evidence actually is she would not have written this festering turd of an article.

“Big Vaping” is nothing more than the latest in a series of imaginary hobgoblins the temperance movement, in its latest guise of “public health”, has conjured up to menace the populace with. The tobacco companies Belluz is so terrified of are a minor presence in the e-cigarette market. Their products are, without exception, obsolete technology that only makes the headlines because of who’s selling it. The real vaping industry is a host of small to medium firms who develop, export and sell devices and liquids. It’s a fiercely competitive industry that’s more or less structurally incapable of acting in concert to achieve a goal like the ones Belluz accuses it of having. The big cigalike manufacturers, tobacco-owned or not, actually support the sort of restrictive laws California and other places are imposing; the smaller, innovative companies who make second and third generation devices are bitterly opposed to them, for good reason.

Anyway, let’s look at one of the faces of “Big Vaping”. Me.

My name is Fergus Mason. I come from the West of Scotland and I’m 45 years old. For most of my adult life I was a soldier; then I spent two years in Kabul as a civilian contractor for NATO, before returning home to become  a freelance writer. I started smoking when I was at university and never saw any particular reason to quit. After all I was fairly accustomed to things like bullets pinging off walls around me, or being woken by the sound of some suicidal idiot detonating himself and a Land Cruiser full of explosives outside the gate of where I worked. Even eating kebabs from Afghan street vendors was an interesting experience, sort of like Russian Roulette with diced lamb. If anything was going to kill me, I reasoned, it probably wasn’t going to be a cigarette. And when I came home in 2011 I just kept on smoking. Quitting, after 20-plus years, wasn’t exactly going to be easy and anyway I didn’t care.

Then, on 5 February 2013 – the day before my 43rd birthday – I woke up feeling rather unwell. I put it down to a hangover, drank some coffee and went to work as usual. I was soon struggling, though; instead of clearing, my head just seemed to become fuzzier as the day went on and I barely managed to write 400 words in six hours. When the dizzy spells and chest pains started I called a friend; I didn’t trust myself to drive by that point. When she arrived she took one look, bundled me into her car and took me to hospital.

As we pulled into the car park I had what doctors call a “sudden cardiac event”. The survival rate for SCEs is not very high – in fact it’s in the low single figures. I was rather lucky I had mine 50 yards from an ambulance whose crew were – rather ironically – standing around having a smoke break.

When I was released from hospital, after an excruciating week of blood tests, limp cheese and weak tea, it seemed that smoking might not be such a great idea in the future. I hadn’t lit up for a week but I knew what the relapse rate was like, so I decided to find an alternative. I had actually encountered electronic cigarettes before, in Kabul of all places, but they’d been pretty terrible. Now, however, I got a decent eGo kit from a local vape shop. And it worked! Within a few days I didn’t even miss smoking; I’d found something both safer and better. A few weeks later I upgraded to a Sigelei Zmax mod and that was that. I was, I decided, very firmly an ex-smoker.

Then, in about early May 2013, I found to my astonishment that the ever-idiotic EU and a loose alliance of health “advocates” were running a campaign to have e-cigarettes strictly regulated or banned. I couldn’t figure out why, because there certainly wasn’t any evidence to support their wild claims, but there it was; it was happening. And almost immediately I started doing what I could to fight back. Since then I’ve written to MPs and MEPs, retweeted thousands of messages countering the claims of the ANTZ, helped design leaflets and written blog posts. I was thrown off Wikipedia to the sound of (fraudulent) shrieks about me being a paid industry advocate. I’m blogging here now. And the industry is not paying me to do it.

Yes, I’ve taken money to write about e-cigs. I’m a freelance writer; I’ll take money to write about anything. The vast majority of what I do, however, is entirely voluntary. In fact it costs me money. Looking at my daily output figures I can tell when a particularly egregious newspaper story was released; my work rate drops off sharply for a day or two as I switch attention to writing comments, emailing the editor and the journalist responsible or making whatever other response I can come up with. This site is paid for out of my own pocket. If I didn’t do vaping advocacy I would be slightly better off. The same goes for the NotBlowingSmoke campaign that Julia Belluz has her sensible panties in such a twist about; despite the wild allegations being made by acolytes of Stanton Glantz it isn’t financed by industry. In fact it’s paid for and run by a friend of mine, Stefan Didak. Stefan is an ordinary guy with a real job, and in his spare time he’d much rather be wrapping himself around beer and cheeseburgers in some San Francisco bar than fighting a ruthless and well-funded opponent like the California Department of Public Health.

But Stefan believes he has to fight, and I feel the same way. We have to fight for electronic cigarettes because they have saved our lives. The people we usually entrust to look after our wellbeing – the politicians and medical establishment – have either failed us or are actively trying to push us back to smoking. We can’t rely on them, so we have to do it ourselves. The opposition to anti-e-cig laws is not coming from a shadowy industrial cartel tied to the tobacco companies. It is coming from ordinary people like me, like Stefan, like Lorien Jollye and Sarah Jakes . It is coming from real public health experts like Clive Bates. If you’re looking for big funding and a network of powerful connections you’ll need to look at our opponents – Martin McKee, with his six-figure funding from nicotine gum maker Glaxo SmithKline, or notorious grant whore Stanton Glantz. Look at the EU politicians who voted for the vile Tobacco Products Directive – which despite its name is mainly an attack on e-cigs – in the face of the protesting scientists whose work they had distorted. But don’t look at us.

There is no “Big Vaping”. There is only us – vapers. Small people, small businesses, small resources. But we have a big cause, and we’re going to fight for it. And if you attack us – and yes, Julia, I’m looking at you – don’t start whining when we hit back.

This post was originally published on 31 March 2015


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Wikipedia, and why it matters

Wikipedia is a byword for unreliable information written by some social inadequate who never comes out of his room. This is slightly unfair: Only parts of it are like that. Unfortunately those parts include almost everything it says on the subject of vaping. It’s easy to say this doesn’t matter, but sadly it does. Here’s why.

Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”,  is a fairly amazing phenomenon. It went live on 12 January 2001, and by 12 February had 1,000 articles. It’s grown a bit since then; now it has (as of 14 July 2015) 4,916,792 English-language articles. If you printed it out in the same format as the Encyclopaedia Britannica there would be  2,176 volumes – enough to fill a nine-shelf bookcase longer than a single-decker bus. What’s even more remarkable is how it’s worked its way off the internet and into society. Many people, when they want to learn about something, head straight for Wikipedia. They rely on it to be accurate. A poll in the UK found that 64% of people trust Wikipedia to be reliable “a great deal” or “a fair amount” – 3% more than believe the same about the BBC.

And that’s a problem.

Why is it a problem? Well, it’s complicated. Wikipedia calls itself “the encyclopedia anyone can edit”, but that’s not quite the reality of it. Yes, anyone can edit most articles, even without an account. But will that edit stay on the site? It’s doubtful. Unless you stick to obscure topics that nobody’s interested in the chances are your contribution will be removed within a few minutes – and any attempt to put it back will be met with a smug lecture about all the Wikipedia policies it violates.

Wikipedia has very few formal rules. What it does have is a huge collection of policies developed by “the community”. Are you groaning yet? You should be. “The community” is, in theory, everyone who wants to edit the site. In practice it’s a surprisingly small collection of people with a strange, but deep, passion for arguing about why a cat has two holes in its fur just where its eyes happen to be. If you’ve ever belonged to any sort of organised club or association you know the type: You’re at the annual meeting. The budget’s been approved; the new membership secretary has stood up, blinking nervously, to be introduced. The president has said “If there’s no further business I’ll close the meeting”, and you start to push your chair back because you want to get to the bar. Then, from two rows behind you, there’s a fake cough and you groan. Because some miserable little fart is about to stand up, holding a bunch of papers, and say “If I could just draw your attention to point 3a, sub-paragraph 29, from the minutes of last year’s meeting…”

Well, that’s Wikipedia.

Actually that’s most of Wikipedia. Some bits are even worse, and the worst of all is the medical bit. I’m not even going to start on the self-appointed head of Wikiproject Medicine, except to say he’s an illiterate moron who spends half his days fingering prostates in rural Canada and the other half posting whiny, ungrammatical comments that make the free encyclopaedia worth every penny of what you paid for it. The simple truth is that this entire section of the site is run by a cabal of opinionated chods who think they own it. If you’re approved of by this dismal clique you get to edit medical articles, which have an even more obscure and convoluted set of “guidelines” than everything else does. If you’re not, you don’t. The problem is that anything that might impact your health in any way is, to these cretins, a medical article. And that includes vaping.

I won’t even bother to tell you what sort of viewpoint they’re coming from; I’m sure you can guess. Let’s just say that the most cited paper on all their e-cigarette articles is the infamous Glantz/Dutra diatribe. Don’t worry though; there’s room for plenty of other crap as well. Formaldehyde, nanoparticles, kids, gateway effects, “we just don’t know” – it’s all in there. And this is a problem.

It’s a problem because 64% of the UK population trust this abysmal pile of festering gizzards. It’s a problem because when someone wants to know about e-cigs there’s a depressingly high chance they’re going to look it up on Wikipedia. It’s a problem because the number of people who know that vaping is safer than smoking is, incredibly, going down.

If you’re an e-cig advocate it’s easy to write Wikipedia off as a joke. That’s fair enough; it is a joke. But it still matters. It matters because the average person who wants to know more about vaping, whether because she wants to quit smoking or she’s wondering what her business’s policy should be, is likely to read these articles. Most people haven’t had the same crash course in finding journal articles as we have; they don’t know which researchers are reputable scientists, and which are corrupt blowhard wing-wipers posing as cardiologists. They’re going to trust what they read on Wikipedia, so that means it needs to be truthful.

Advocacy costs money, most of the time. We’re not shills for Big Vape, and we don’t have slush funds we can dip into whenever we want to attend a meeting or get a pamphlet printed. I know that I can’t do all I’d like to, because I simply don’t have the cash. But here’s something you can do for nothing. Create a Wikipedia account and spend a couple of weeks learning the rules. Stay away from the vaping articles at first; just edit whatever interests you, build up a history of a few dozen decent edits and find out how it works. Pay attention to disputes, how they get resolved and what policies are applied; read up on things like Reliable Source, Verifiability and Neutral Point of View. Then start making the occasional comment on the talk pages of articles about vaping. Be polite. Be reasonable. Be willing to find a compromise if it improves the article even slightly. Don’t stop editing other topics, because they’ll label you as a single-purpose account (and probably an industry shill) and apply “community sanctions” to ban you from the whole subject. But slowly turn up the pressure. If you can provoke Doc James or his pet monkey QuackGuru into losing their tempers or telling an outright lie, all the better – one of the valiant band of people who’re already trying to improve the articles will know what to do. Right now there are half a dozen people trying to restore some semblance of the real world to Wikipedia’s e-cigarette coverage. We need that to be fifty people, or a hundred; the more the merrier. A hundred people, each posting one comment a day, will move the consensus a long way from the mess it’s in now.

The important fights right now are with the EU TPD, the FDA and various other official bodies, but sorting out the cesspit of ANTZ propaganda on Wikipedia is something we can’t neglect. Well, I say “We”. I got banned months ago, at the instigation of the Canadian rectum-prodder. So I suppose that means it’s up to you.