In the Ugly Nicotine Debate, Being Kind Isn’t Just Right—It’s Effective

May 13, 2024

Going to school as an autistic kid sometimes felt like a never-ending nightmare. Spitballs hitting me in the back of the head, being tripped in the hallway, having my books knocked out of my arms, and the constant name-calling and ridicule.

I sat in the boat with my grandpa one lazy summer afternoon when the fish weren’t biting. My family knew me as excessively talkative. That day, my grandpa commented that I was unusually quiet, and asked what was wrong. I shook my head, and tried to stare at the lake so he didn’t see my tears.

But it was impossible to keep secrets from my grandpa, and a few minutes later, I poured my heart out. I wanted to leave home and live with him, because the kids might be kinder at a different school.

That day was the first time I heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

The contentious debate over nicotine too often plays out as opposing groups shouting at each other, while people continue to die from smoking.

While Gramps was trying to encourage me to be tough and brave by giving me something to say to my taunters, the truth is that words can hurt—a lot. What’s more, they can actually shut down communication and prevent issues from being resolved.

Many of us are prone to weaponizing our words. This applies to all sorts of arenas, but it makes me think of one in which I’m involved: the contentious debate over nicotine. This too often plays out as opposing groups shouting at each other, while people continue to die from smoking.

When dealing with opposing views, where does a productive conversation stop and bullying begin? Robert George’s essay, “On Critics and Bullies,” provides a helpful summary: “A critic—even a forceful one—does business in the proper currency of intellectual discourse: presenting evidence, providing reasons, making arguments; a bully questions people’s motives and calls them names.”

In the nicotine space, we’ve all heard these names: accusations of being a shill or a grifter, calling someone a “Karen” or an idiot. Perhaps we’ve even used them—or other scornful words, like telling people to “do some research.”

Innuendoes that people only say what they say for the money are common—and fly in all directions in this debate, whether the funding comes from the industry, or taxes and settlement payments, or Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Over the years, people who are passionate about tobacco harm reduction (THR) have been referred to as “snowflakes,” bots, industry stooges and trolls. They have been accused of trying to addict the next generation of young people to nicotine. They’ve been disdainfully dismissed as “Twitterati,” because it’s “easy to criticize from a Twitter handle in your mother’s basement.” The stories of people whose lives are at stake are dismissed as anecdotes.

But people who want to restrict access to vapes have also been called many names—and not only prohibitionists and nanny-staters, but quite literally Nazis and murderers. ANTZ (Anti-Nicotine and Tobacco Zealots) is another favored term for those passionate about a nicotine-free society.

I was schooled in the attitude that there was no point in dialogue with “those people.” Hit them hard, and move on.

When I began advocating for THR in 2014, fellow advocates showed me the ropes. It felt like we were in a fight to the death, and in a sense, we are. Losing the products that keep us from smoking is always a threat, and if we smoke, we know it’s going to kill many of us.

Some of those advocates taught me to be loud, and to use words like weapons. I was schooled in the attitude that there was no point in dialogue with “those people.” Hit them hard, and move on.

But people on the other side also perceive threats. Many of them sincerely fear harms from youth use of nicotine products. Tobacco control veterans fear being fooled by an industry that duped them in the past.

Just as some people on the other side have no apparent interest in hearing our stories and perspectives, it never crossed my mind to attempt a meaningful conversation with one of them—to ask to hear their story, and learn why they do what they do and what led them to their beliefs.

When I finally began to do that, it was an awakening. I was shocked by the extent to which they just weren’t hearing our messaging. I came to the conclusion that, in some ways, we have been shooting ourselves in the foot. Many on the other side have viewed us as a bunch of extremists, acting like schoolyard bullies online.

An article by journalist Chris Chapman reinforced this revelation for me. Chapman wrote about how he’d been treated by people who vape. I may not agree with all of his positions on vaping, but his advice to proponents of vaping hit home.

“Don’t get angry; get kind,” he wrote. “Most important of all, realize that hurling threats and insults or accusing people of being involved in grand, sinister conspiracies does not make your voice heard.”

It is easy—and gratifying!—to win plaudits from your own gallery for a combative statement. It is much harder to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you.

I hasten to add that I would say exactly the same to people on the other side. And there lies the problem. We are wrapped in an Us vs. Them battle, where the side we’re on becomes our entrenched identity.

It is easy—and gratifying!—to win plaudits from your own gallery for a combative statement. It is much harder to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. Research has found that when we encounter information that challenges our self-concept, this triggers negative emotions that impede our ability to absorb new facts.

Our tribal stances help to delay any victory in the nicotine debate, which guarantees that people who smoke will lose.

My past taught me what it felt like to be bullied. I had been fiercely fighting for THR for years, but I realized that what I was doing wasn’t making the difference I wanted it to. I’m ashamed that I let myself become a bully, even if my passion is to save lives. It was a mistake to act that way.

So I decided to make a concerted effort to change how I communicate with people, even when I strongly disagree with them. My mantra now is #BeKind. The world is filled with people who feel pain inflicted by the words of others. I have no interest in adding to their numbers.

I can only play my small part, but I believe my advocacy has become more effective as a result of this change. More than previously, and even if only partially, I have helped some people who didn’t agree with me to change their perspectives. Discovering common ground can open doors to understanding.

I think we owe it to people who smoke to be constructive. 

I’ve recently had the opportunity to speak with people right across the nicotine debate spectrum. Most have been kind and decent human beings, sincerely trying to be helpful. A few have not, and fit the bully mold quite well. When I encounter a bully, I try to remain calm. It can take effort to avoid “an eye for an eye” and stay kind, but I feel it’s worth it.

It is hard to believe that the word bully once meant lover. It is exasperating to listen to the fear, frustration and anger prevalent on both sides. It is heartbreaking to witness how a war of words can obscure the original issue: preventing death from smoking.

My passion for THR is as strong as ever. My conviction, supported by evidence, that it can save lives on a massive scale is undiminished. But I don’t think treating people like evil enemies is an effective strategy for initiating change. I think we owe it to people who smoke to be constructive. 

 


 

Photograph by Klara Kulikova via Unsplash

 

Kim "Skip" Murray

Skip started smoking when she was 10, and quit through vaping in 2015. She is an enthusiastic tobacco harm reduction advocate. She works as a direct service professional at a group home providing services for people living with disabilities. Skip also lives with a disability and was diagnosed with autism, ADHD and depression in 2020. She is the co-founder and a research volunteer for the Safer Nicotine Wiki. She previously owned a vape shop and served as the research fellow for the Consumer Center of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. She lives in Minnesota.

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