I didn't know that the e-cigarette summit was taking place this week until I received an email about it on Monday evening. Many thanks to Amanda Strange, who organised the event, for allowing me media accreditation at such a late stage on Tuesday.
So yesterday morning, I set-off for the Royal Society to spend a day discussing the science, regulation, and public health issues around vaping.
It was a packed programme - too packed in many ways. The breaks were curtailed because we were not keeping to time, which meant that you didn't have a chance to finish your coffee and use the lavatory. As I discovered to my cost on a couple of occasions, sacrificing the latter meant I had to leave the conference hall to answer the call of nature.
I am not about to give you a blow-by-blow account. That would take too long. Instead, I want to highlight some of things that were said, and give you my response to them. Let's begin with Ram Moorthy, deputy chair of the BMA board of science.
Ram described the BMA, much to my amusement, as a professional body. It is not a professional body - it is a trade union. Ram talked us through how the BMA reaches its decisions that then turn into BMA policy. Basically, BMA members (doctors) get together and put down motions. Some of those motions are grouped together into composites (remind you of Labour Party conferences of the 70s & 80s?), and then a vote is taken. Ram didn't say this, but my impression is that a couple of hundred prejudiced doctors can set BMA policy and it would take another year to reverse it. This backs up my original assertion that the BMA is a union, not a professional body. Which professional body would set policy in such a way?
During questions, I mentioned that many of the freedom of information responses I received from councils said they banned vaping because of BMA advice. I asked Ram to make sure this advice was brought up-to-date ASAP. I was not reassured by his response. My advice to councils is to ignore the BMA, and instead listen to a genuine professional body - the Royal Collage of Physicians (RCP). The advice from the RCP has largely shaped the advice now coming from Public Health England.
One of the highlights of the day was watching and listening to a presentation from Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, a research fellow at the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Athens. Dr Farsalinos spoke about the absolute risk from e-vapour products for users and bystanders. I wish every council in the country could have heard this presentation. Take a look at the picture below which compares passive vaping to passive smoking. It simply blows the notion of passive vaping out of the water.
Fraser Cropper, the CEO of Totally Wicked and Chair of the Independent British Vape Trade Association (IBVTA) gave a tour de force. Vaping is slowly being destroyed in the USA, and those of us campaigning here in the UK need to do everything we can to assist those in the USA fighting against it. I am certainly more than willing to assist, and I know many other vaping campaigners here in the UK who will assist, too. Fraser also touched on the prejudices that still exist about vaping. Someone at his child's school (I can't remember if it was a parent or teacher) had commented, "Does your father still make those e-cigarettes that kill people?"
If we thought we were going to get any help from the Department of Health in reversing the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) any time soon, forget it. Alette Addison, a senior civil servant in the department who lead the UK's delegation to COP7 in New Delhi, said that we must continue to implement the TPD whilst we remain a member of the EU. Although she says we must, I have a feeling that she will never try to rid us of these regulations that should never have been placed on the vaping industry in the first place. I have been involved in politics long enough to know that civil servants in Whitehall love regulations. It keeps them, and their friends in the compliance industry, in jobs.
Louise Ross, the stop smoking manager for Leicester, is a joy to behold. During her presentation, she struck me as a no-nonsense woman. She also strongly backs vaping as a means of quitting combustible tobacco. During questions, she was asked by a fellow stop smoking manager from another council how to get around the legal problems of helping the homeless quit smoking through vaping. Louise's reply was priceless. "I didn't ask", she said. When I spoke to her afterwards, she still felt a little guilty for giving, what she thought was, a flippant reply. I told her it wasn't a flippant reply. If you want something doing, there are times when you simply have to get on with it. Alette Addison, please take note.
The problem with these type of conferences is that they are aimed at charities and the public sector. Very few people in attendance would have put their hands in their pocket and paid for a ticket. Looking at the list of attendees, I wouldn't like to estimate the bill for taxpayers. Was it worth the money? That's an entirely subjective opinion. I learnt a few new things, did some useful networking, and because I had press accreditation, I didn't have to pay for a ticket. So, yes, for me it was useful. Would I attend a similar conference this time next year? That all depends on who the speakers are and the topics chosen for debate. I say debate, because apart from a few questions at the end of each session, there wasn't any debate. The day consisted of sessions of five lectures lasting around 15-20 minutes, followed by Q&A, followed by a break. As much as I want to be informed, I also want to interact and hear dissenting voices - people who want to challenge the EU's TPD, for example.
If next year's e-cigarette summit is like that, it will be much better. If they want someone who is going to speak their mind, all they have to do is ask me!