Natalia is sitting in a leather chair in the corner of her office. “I need stealth,” she says, insistently. She’s moving her hands, one over the other. It seems to relax her. She takes off her glasses and gestures to me to sit. “Do you want a maté?”
In the dimly lit room, an entire wall is filled with shelving, holding white files and small, neatly stacked, multi-colored boxes. “Of course I have misgivings,” she continues, as she clears her desk of extremely organized paperwork and serves me the maté. “Even fear.”
From elsewhere in the house comes the voice of a child calling for his mother. Natalia gets up, opens the door and asks her husband to take care of him. “I’m in an interview, honey!”
“Sorry. We can start.”
Natalia’s Path to Harm Reduction
I’m visiting Natalia (not her real name) in Buenos Aires. She’s in her 40s, a middle-class university graduate who, like many women in Argentina, started her own business after losing her job. But unlike most, Natalia is considered a criminal by the Argentine government.
That’s because her business is selling vaping products. The government banned in-person and online sales, distribution and importation back in 2011, when ANMAT (the National Drug, Food, and Medical Technology Administration) issued administrative provision number 3226-11. Possible penalties, depending on circumstances, include seizures, fines and even imprisonment.
This places Natalia among a group of entrepreneurs who are now criminalized in Argentina and other countries. Most illicit store owners and e-liquid or equipment manufacturers are, like Natalia, vapers and former smokers themselves. Generally conducting their business with professionalism and respect for their customers’ needs, they work in the shadows and deal with smugglers to obtain their stock, often at significant personal risk.
Up to 25 percent of Argentina’s adults (Tobacco Atlas puts it lower, at 21 percent of men and 12.6 percent of women) are estimated to smoke cigarettes, which of course are sold legally—one of the highest rates in Latin America. Estimates of annual smoking-related deaths are in the 40,000-48,000 range. A situation, you might think, that cries out for tobacco harm reduction.
Combined with this, the country faced major economic challenges even before the global upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Buenos Aires, the jobless rate exceeds 20.percent for men. Throughout the country, there are more than 4 million women who are the main breadwinner in their household, including Natalia.
Natalia has been married to Juan for 15 years. “We had a very normal life and we lived well—without luxury, but very well,” she continued. But almost a decade ago, the company that employed both her and Juan merged with another, multinational company. “Some [overseas] colleagues transferred to our posts. They laid off all the employees they had in Argentina. And we found ourselves without a job, with a small child, a mortgage, you know everything that is coming … We left our apartment and came here, which was my grandparents’ house.”
It is an old, high-ceilinged and beautiful house, in a traditional neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Natalia remembers playing with neighbors and cousins there, and particularly hiding out in a tower at a nearby square one day when she was 12. “My cousin stole a cigarette from his mother and we sneakily went to smoke in that square … We felt grown up. Smoking was nice and glamorous.“
The adults in her life all smoked, she recalled. “I can close my eyes and remember the smell of cigarettes in various environments from my childhood, in the rooms, on the clothes, on the walls. In high school, you were cool if you smoked, because it was so common, in movies, on TV … You grew up on that.“
After starting at the age of 12, Natalia went on to smoke for 28 years—up to 40 a day. “I liked to smoke,” she said. “But there came a time when I wanted to at least take care of my health. Of course I had thought about quitting many, many times. But I couldn’t.”
“Not for a second did I think about a cigarette again.”
It was in 2017 that a friend visited from Spain and told her about vaping, insisting that she had to try it. “I had already read something about vaping but it seemed to me that I was going to change something bad for something that was not scientifically proven to be a good option, do you understand me?”
But just a few days later, “I had a horrible episode of shortness of breath, so strong that I couldn’t even walk. I was scared and called my friend, who advised me and taught me through video calls and long phone conversations how I could get started in this vaping thing.”
Natalia bought a starter kit and some bottles of liquid that were available, illegally, on the internet. Finding online Spanish-language vaping information sparse and contradictory, she experimented for herself, describing one of the early liquids she tried as “horrendous.”
But when she soon got the hang of it, it was “like magic.” After that, “Not for a second did I think about a cigarette again.”
As she talked, in between drinking maté and vaping, Natalia exhibited the passion of so many former smokers who have switched to vaping. Her experiences inspired her to begin a new way of earning a living through helping people like herself.
Lift-Off and Threats for an Illegal Business
She began by reselling the brand of artisan liquids, produced illegally in Argentina, that she used, just to acquaintances.
Then another merchant showed her some deep-web sites where she could order products from overseas at wholesale prices. One particular vendor was set up specifically to serve merchants like Natalia.
She hands over the cash and receives a pile of boxes, without having the chance to check what’s inside.
After arranging a purchase of products online, Natalia will typically receive a text message, stating a date. Then she’ll get a call from an unidentified number, specifying a meeting point. The locations change every time, and are sometimes in the heart of the city, other times miles away. Sometimes they change again at the last minute.
When the meeting takes place, silence is the rule. She hands over the cash and receives a pile of boxes, without having the chance to check what’s inside.
In this way, she has gradually added more equipment and accessories to her improvised catalog. More and more customers have come. She now has a hidden website and a hidden showroom. She uses a third-party motorcycle service to deliver products to buyers.
She doesn’t just supply products, however, but also the advice that she would have liked when she was new to vaping. “It is forbidden and there is nowhere where they can advise you correctly on the handling, on the options, their pros and cons,” she said. “I started to inform myself and to review the information and to teach my clients. Mainly older people find it very difficult to find information. They only find garbage in the newspapers and on TV.”
While many of Natalia’s customers are women, she describes vaping in Argentina as “very masculine—surely 85 percent of the public that vapes in Argentina is male.” Women who smoke are often put off this harm reduction resource by its illegality, according to Natalia, and if they do start vaping, they “do not show themselves.”
“Prohibition scares people. Especially older people and women,” she said. “What comes out in the press scares people who think about starting vaping … the lies and the lack of information, lack of regulation, anti-vaping policies.”
“I often get threats from clients. They make demands under threat that they will report you.”
But Natalia’s potential customers aren’t the only ones who are scared. She herself has to live with the constant threat that comes with being engaged in an illegal activity.
“I often get threats from clients,” she said. “They demand things that they will never demand in a normal business relationship. They make demands under threat that they will report you.”
The likelihood that such menaces hold weight is increased by the fact that some of Natalia’s clients work for the federal government—some even as cops or prosecutors. Such clients require particular attention, she said, for fear that retaliation might be around the corner.
In an unregulated market, your competitors, too, can become more than just commercial threats. “There are many disloyal colleagues who make complaints against their colleagues or people they don’t like, only to bring down the competition and monopolize the market,” said Natalia. “Many of them are the ones that are growing, dominating the market, with the economic power to transfer larger and larger amounts.”
Those who trade in vapes are often raided by ANMAT, AFIP (Argentina’s version of the IRS) and customs. Federal charges ranging from “trade in dangerous products” to smuggling or even “water pollution” can result.
Many public officials understand that these products should not be prohibited but feel they have to fulfill their obligations. Others take advantage of their power over legally vulnerable traders to request “tips.” Some even use their positions as cover to engage in the market themselves.
“We only ask for fair and safe regulation, both for the consumer and for us, the merchants,” said Natalia. “Today we buy contraband merchandise with the risk of losing the investment, risk of robberies en route, raids, risks that defective products or fakes arrive at the hands of our clients, risks of selling unregulated liquids—I pay a lot of attention to quality control, because there is production of fake liquids that cannot be distinguished from the real ones.”
Natalia also feels judged and stigmatized by those of her acquaintances who know something about her business.
“I love what I do, being a trader,” she concluded. “I love the idea that what I sell can help so many people to have a healthier life. But I cannot stand the underworld. Besides being dangerous—even more so for a woman—the procedures are very cumbersome, impossible and exhausting. I want to pay taxes and be able to grow with my work, not have to hide as a drug dealer, buy at a meeting point, be afraid lest the police stop you.”
A Climate That Abandons Smokers
There is no sign that Natalia will get her wish soon. ANMAT last confirmed the continuation of the national prohibition in November 2016, having carried out a behind-closed-doors evaluation of the health effects of vaping. It is unclear what evidence they thought justified this decision, when authorities like the UK’s Royal College of Physicians and the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Mathematics have determined that vaping is a vastly less harmful alternative to smoking.
“They [ANMAT] do not investigate the product,” said Natalia. “They only tell us that they do not know the risk it causes and for that reason they prohibit it, when there are studies worldwide that endorse vaping.”
“Reducing the damage is possible; you are on time.”
Natalia became emotional when I asked about the future of her business. She described it as “very bad,” and pointed again to the stress of living in constant fear. If vaping businesses were legalized in Argentina, she said, she would set up a “European-style” club for people to sample and buy products, where they could receive help and advice with every step of their transition from smoking.
For now, that’s just a dream. But Natalia wanted to end with a message for the here-and-now.
“People have to know that it can be a very difficult process, but not impossible. We are thousands of people who quit smoking thanks to vaping, many with surprising ease. We want to tell the world that yes, it is possible. I would like to leave this message to you, especially to women smokers, mothers of young children, grandmothers: Reducing the damage is possible; you are on time.”
Photograph of street in Buenos Aires via NeedPix.com/Public Domain