I had the opportunity on Thursday night to attend an event hosted by the Merseyside Skeptics Society. The guest speaker was Robin Ireland, and the topic looked interesting.
Why vapers think that e-cigarettes will lead to the ending of cigarette smoking and why their optimism may be misplaced.
Here is how the event was described on the Facebook invitation.
Electronic cigarettes are a hot topic and not only in public health forums. Public Health England have pronounced e-cigs as around “95% less harmful than tobacco”. However the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in America and the World Health Organisation take a much more precautionary stance. The latter view ‘Electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS)’ as having potential public health benefits but these are yet unproven. Robin Ireland, a Liverpool-based public health advocate, will discuss the evidence as much as it is available in the context of tobacco control efforts in England.
Robin is Chief Executive of Heart of Mersey and the Health Equalities Group originally established in 2003 to address the inequitable levels of heart disease and stroke on Merseyside. Robin was awarded his Master of Public Health at the University of Liverpool in 2007 and was elected Member of the Faculty of Public Health through Distinction in 2015. His position on e-cigs has led him to be vilified by vapers on social media whilst the Institute of Economic Affairs has branded the Health Equalities Group, “Sock Puppets”.
In all honesty I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The title of the talk appeared to be designed to be inflammatory, but knowing a little about Skeptics societies, I didn’t think the audience was going to be an easy one to bamboozle, if that was the intent.
I arrived at the venue early and spent some time in the bar chatting to the locals (predominantly about e-cigarettes and the physical effects of stopping smoking lol). I was joined by Adam Williams (Rojeans). Who had history with the speaker, having appeared on radio a couple of times with him. As we moved into the meeting room and took our seats Robin spotted Adam and commented that he knew he could expect some tough questions from our section of the room. Their greetings were cordial, almost jovial.
The presentation was split broadly into two sections. The first was on the subject of tobacco, and its effect on the health of the population of Merseyside. There were slides with details of life expectancy in the Merseyside area, a comparison of life expectancy in various areas of the UK and information on how smoking prevalence, which is high in the area, is believed to be a major contributory factor to comparatively low life expectancy levels in Merseyside.
To open the second section of the presentation Robin started with a slide about abuse he had received on Twitter. I’m not sure how this was really relevant to the topic at hand, though he did at least acknowledge that not all vapers were the same and that equally his topic, which assumed to know what vapers think, would not be true of all vapers.
He did a good job of outlining his reasons for concern about vaping. These could broadly be described as a concern that bill boards and flavouring were not aimed at adult smokers, but at children. A real worry that renormalisation could undo much of the hard work he had put into reducing smoking prevalence, and a large dose of ‘We don’t know what the long term risks might be’. Dual use and long-term vaping both came up for some criticism.
I felt that he was less thorough in presenting what he thought the alternative viewpoint was, though perhaps this was to be expected.
With the presentation over and a break for everyone to take a trip to the bar. We settled back down for the Q+A session, and that’s when the evening really livened up.
The questions were generally well thought out and I was pleased to see that when the speaker didn’t know the answer he had the courage to say so rather than attempt to blather. What was particularly amusing was the way that questions were not only directed at the speaker, but at the vapers in the room. After Adam asked his question and identified himself as a vape shop owner, several questions were directed our way. A cell biologist joined in on the subject of nicotine addiction, and a psychologist commented on the propensity of humans to experiment with mind altering substances.
I don’t think you could say that by the end of the evening any conclusions had been reached, but the event was entertaining, educational and above all civilised.
Adam particularly commented that he felt Robin Ireland’s position had mellowed somewhat in the two years he had known him. He’s been listening, and the emphasis on Tobacco Harm Reduction which was a feature of Adam’s participation in the Q+A did appear to be taken on board.
I had the opportunity to spend a brief time after the event chatting to Robin, and personally I found him to be quite likeable. We talked about the TPD and the issues I believe this is going to cause. My specific question during the Q+A had been about whether he was concerned that the legislation would hand the vaping industry to the tobacco companies.
He asked me about how likely I thought the TPD was to lead to shoddy black market goods flooding the UK market. My reply basically said I was very concerned, as I was going to end up using black market nicotine and I was deeply concerned that there would be little way of telling if it was the grade or strength that it purported to be.
We agreed that there are some nutters on Twitter and that I probably knew more about the wording and implementation of the TPD than he did. He came across as someone open to hearing alternative viewpoints, even if sometimes his background and training made it difficult for him to accept them. A thoroughly civilised end to what was a thoroughly civilised event.