On April 7, the organization Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVE) hosted a day-long virtual conference called “Clear the Vapor: The Way Forward.”
For the relatively sparse numbers who tuned in live, it was a call to arms. Prohibition-minded academics, lobbyists, parents and elected officials got together on Zoom to confirm their own beliefs about the dangers of vaping and the necessity of banning flavored e-cigarettes. They also charted a path for the future, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates the premarket tobacco product applications that vaping companies had to file last September.
Completely absent from the conversation, of course, were tobacco harm reductionists and adults who used vapes to quit cigarettes.
The decision to shut out dissenting voices was not a surprise, because PAVE has been ringing alarm bells so loudly since 2018—when they first discovered the technology—that they can only hear themselves. Three New York City moms—Meredith Berkman, Dorian Fuhrman and Dina Alessi—founded the organization that year, after they learned that a JUUL representative had come into their kids’ school as part of “an anti-addiction group” and said that e-cigarettes were “totally safe” and “would receive FDA approval ‘any day.’” When Berkman’s son told her what happened, she phoned her friends, and the trio were shocked by what they learned about social media marketing and the prevalence of teen vaping.
Over the past few years, PAVE has been in contact with lawmakers, testified in the halls of Congress, and protested outside JUUL’s offices in New York, attracting considerable attention and funding in the process.
Their influence is vast. Sponsors of “Clear the Vapor” included CVS, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK), the Truth Initiative and the American Heart Association—all of which have advocated for or supported bans on flavored vaping products. The usual suspects spoke, like Matthew Myers, the president of CTFK; Robin Koval, the CEO of the Truth Initiative; Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); Dr. Daniel Sterman, a pulmonary doctor at New York University; Dr. Jessica Fetterman, an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University; and mothers whose teenagers had started vaping or had suffered from a lung-related illness.
The conference also featured recorded speeches from Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, Senator Mitt Romney, FTC Commissioner Noah Joshua Phillips and Senator Richard Blumenthal. At the end, Dr. Stanton Glantz, a retired professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and noted tobacco harm reduction opponent, logged on to make his usual unsubstantiated claims—like how many kids who vape go on to smoke cigarettes. He failed to mention his retracted study of vaping’s impact on the likelihood of heart attacks.
PAVE did not have to create a sealed echo chamber. Even if they wanted to exclude ardent harm reductionists, the group could have invited well-respected tobacco control experts, like Cliff Douglass, the director of the University of Michigan Tobacco Research Network who recently made an eloquent case for reaching across the aisle. Or even just a few of the former adult smokers who transitioned from smoking to vaping using flavored e-liquid, potentially saving their lives.
But that’s apparently not what PAVE wanted.
“We expect all of our participants to be respectful of all of our panelists and speakers,” Dorian Fuhrman said at the beginning of the conference. “Comments and questions of disruptive, disrespectful, or bullying nature will not be tolerated, and that participant will be removed.”
The promise was kept. The conference, which was also broadcast and remains on YouTube, managed to embolden the opposition. At one point, adult vaping activists seem to have flooded the comments section so much that their messages were getting deleted in real time. And much like CTFK’s Roast of Tobacco last week, consumers and advocates co-opted the Twitter hashtag to make their own points about harm reduction.
“The failure to engage in dialogue with those with lived experience or contrasting views shows a fundamental disengagement with basic principles of public health,” David Sweanor, a tobacco industry expert and chair of the Advisory Board for the Centre for Health Law, Policy, and Ethics at the University of Ottawa, told Filter. Prominent drug-war opponent Ethan Nadelmann, meanwhile, lambasted the conference’s one-sidedness on Twitter.
“Clear the Vapor” made it clear that the battle will be ongoing. Prohibitionists are setting themselves up for the next fight—whether that’s against emerging “wellness” vapes or synthetic nicotine or disposables like Puff Bar. By calling on the FDA to preemptively ban flavors before market review, which they repeatedly did at the conference, they are, like their allies in Congress, positioning the agency as essentially incompetent. So if the federal government approves any flavored vaping products later this year, it’ll be portrayed as complicit in the so-called youth vaping “epidemic.”
Groups like PAVE and CTFK can never be satisfied. Their goal—eradicating nicotine use from the globe—is no more reachable than the drug-war mirage of a “drug-free world.” And as tobacco harm reduction technology expands, so does their mission.
The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, has received unrestricted grants from JUUL. Filter’s Editorial Independence Policy applies.