Passionate But Underfunded: The Vape Advocates Fighting for Public Health

As anyone who has followed vaping for a while knows, the world of tobacco harm reduction is, to put it mildly, divisive. 

On one side, there are those advocating for access to safer nicotine products (SNP), such as e-cigarettes. These alternatives are likely to carry some risk, but public health organisations such as the UK government estimates the risk to be a small fraction of that of smoking.

Fighting against reduced-harm products, for a myriad of reasons, are those who advocate a “quit or die” approach. They seek to restrict all forms of tobacco harm reduction (other than the pharmaceutical companies who fund them) and achieve a nicotine-free world. 

However, a new survey has revealed the scale of consumer advocacy for access to safer nicotine products.

What did the study find?
Led by the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction, a project of UK public health agency, Knowledge•Action•Change, the research was published in Wiley’s open-access journal, Public Health Challenges. The survey identified 54 active consumer advocacy organisations working around the world to raise awareness about and promote access to SNP. 

It found that the vast majority of these groups (42) were operated entirely by volunteers, most of whom had successfully quit smoking with the help of safer nicotine products like vaping.

Professor Gerry Stimson, Director of K•A•C, told us that the existence of these groups is essential for harm reduction. 

In almost all areas of public health, affected communities are now seen as a vital part of the policymaking process and the same recognition is long overdue in this field. Policymakers need to hear the experiences of people who have switched away from smoking, and take note of how their decisions are likely to impact people’s lives.

Funding challenges
Of particular note was the fact that none of the consumer advocacy organisations reported receiving funding from tobacco or pharmaceutical companies, and the total funding for all organisations surveyed amounted to just US $309,810. This is in stark contrast to the many millions spent on campaigns by actors seeking to limit access to safer nicotine products. 

However, the report highlighted the need for consumer organisations to transition from an initial start-up phase to a position where they are better resourced, and for consumer groups to be recognised as legitimate stakeholders in the policy sphere.

However, obtaining these funds is not so easy, Gerry admitted. 

The study acknowledges the Catch-22 facing consumer advocacy organisations. The funding sources in this highly contested space are limited, and most groups made it clear they would not accept funding from manufacturers of nicotine or tobacco products or pharmaceutical companies.

Gerry did point out that there a number of large, international health-focused foundations do fund interventions and advocacy work for harm reduction when it comes to HIV/AIDS and substance use, before adding:

In terms of return on investment, they are missing out – the impact of tobacco harm reduction on the global burden of non-communicable disease should and could be enormous.

The researchers hope that, in addition to highlighting the need for funding, the report will give advocacy groups a chance to learn from each other and gain insights from each other’s strategies.

Wrapping up
It’s clear that tens of millions of people around the world, from those who are using the cigarettes that will kill half of them to those who have already switched to safer alternatives, deserve to be represented and heard. 

What’s harder is to work out how the groups can get the resources they need without being accused of being Big Tobacco (or Big Vape!) stooges.

Advice for those looking to start their own vape advocacy group

“Speak to others who have done the same thing. As the study has shown, the international community of advocates is active and growing – and it’s a supportive and welcoming community too. 

“Find organisations in your country or neighbouring countries and get in touch. The regional umbrella organisations – ETHRA in Europe, CASA in Africa, CAPHRA in Asia-Pacific and ARDT Iberoamerica in Latin America – are also there to create networks and share best practice. There are people out there doing great work – you can join them.”

Jessica Harding, Consumer Engagement Director at KAC