Like Gerry Stimson and Paddy Costall, I come from a drugs background and am now heading towards 40 years in the saddle with drugs charities, most recently as Director of Communications for DrugScope until 2015. With an ex-colleague, I now run an online drug information service called DrugWise and a daily news service called DS Daily which operates much like the Digest.
Throughout all that time, I have operated on a principle that drug information should be topical, non-judgemental and evidence-based and underpinned by a commitment to harm reduction. I attended last year's GFN Conference as rapporteur, a role I am reprising this year. It was both a pleasure and an eye-opener. I couldn't believe just how polarised the global public health community had become over this issue. Plainly, there are some significant cross-overs between the illicit drug and nicotine worlds with sadly the same ideological intransigence against harm reduction that refuses to acknowledge that for those who seek it, the opportunities for recovery or abstinence are dramatically reduced if they are dead.
To start the ball rolling, I thought I would briefly look back at 2016. The big ticket events of the year came in May with the launch of both the FDA Deeming (or should that be Damming?) Regulations and the implementation of the European Union's Tobacco Products Directive (TPD).
The onerous requirements of the FDA regulations immediately called into question the viability of some of the smaller manufacturers. NJOY, one of the longest established US e-cigarette companies filed for bankruptcy, although a consortium stepped in with a $30m offer to buy the business. More worrying though from a US perspective was that the well publicised – and from the public's point of view, highly authoritative reports from the Surgeon General and the Center for Disease Control took their place in what has become known as the world of 'post truth' or as we used to say 'propaganda'. And of course, no surprises that COP 7 in Delhi continued to focus on risk over benefits and push for ever more stringent controls and bans.
Over in Europe, individual member countries were required to integrate the TPD into their national legislation with the inevitable smorgasbord of responses as each country cherry picked its way through the Directive. ECigIntelligence reported on a cunning French design to get round the tank size limitations: a twin-tank system delivering a cocktail of e-liquids, with each refillable tank conforming to the 2 ml capacity limit.
But with these wide ranging pieces of legislation in place, what is the likely impact of the two seismic political shifts to hit the US and Europe? While those engaged in the new legal cannabis business in the States are now worried about a clampdown, the vaping industry was cautiously optimistic with one company executive commenting that the election of Trump “represents a populist and anti-regulatory sentiment in the U.S. If the vapour community can consolidate this sentiment appropriately in concert with legislators and those in the public health community who support them, they can do a great deal to improve the prospects of the industry.” Meanwhile in the UK, the Brexit vote could have implications for how the TPD is implemented or even ignored.
Yet as the Forbes Magazine observed in its end of year round-up, we go into 2017 as we started 2016 with the smoke and mirrors of official reporting still leaving the ordinary citizen
in a fog about the key questions: are e-cigarettes safer than cigarettes, do they renormalise smoking after decades of falling prevalence (at least in the West) and are they a stepping stone for kids to start smoking and progress onto cigarettes?
Lots to think about and no doubt I will return to many of these issues throughout the coming months.