Can’t see the people for the forest. part 1

Carl V Phillips wrote an article for Tobacco Reporter, a trade magazine for the tobacco industry, it’s a good one and you can read it here;  Digital magazine version. Go to page 32.

Go on, this will still be here when you get back!


He titled the article “The Limits of People Power” a title which sets out his stall. While acknowledging what can be achieved the article mostly examines what can’t and more importantly why. I’m not going to say he is completely wrong, though he is on one small detail;

The Forest model – independently consumer voiced but openly industry-funded – is the only proven model…..

Yeah, how’s that going? Being the go-to voice of the smoker, always with the introduction “tobacco funded smokers rights group Forest..” Forest, is at best a few recalcitrant smokers congratulating themselves for ‘standing up to the man’ and viewed as contrary old men, (yes it’s all men). Of course, this doesn’t invalidate what they stand for, except it does. In the eyes of the general public, Forest is astroturf representing the tobacco industry and as long as that taint exists, it makes no difference how they frame their argument. There will be a whiff of sulphur from the smoke in the air.


So how do we break the limits of people power? How can we advocate effectively? If we want to avoid being seen, like Forest as a relic of the past, refusing to join the rest of the world. How do we present tobacco harm reduction in a way that will gain support from smokers, non-smokers, and tobacco control?


This has gained urgency now due to the development of e-cigarettes and vaping as an alternative to smoking. Tobacco harm reduction isn’t new, it’s been around since the late 70’s but it is only in 2008 we see it recommended as one of the strategies to reduce the death toll from smoking. Fair play to the AAPHP for giving it due consideration,

However, the issue is caught up in what can only be described as a culture war. One side unable or unwilling to find common ground with the other.


It’s this common ground that needs to be found if we are to progress with harm reduction. So what do we as vapers and advocates of harm reduction have in common with smokers, non-smokers, and tobacco control?

These are 3 distinct groups with 3 distinct sets of priorities. Smokers just want to be left alone, they are sick and tired of being told to quit and for a lot of them harm reduction in the form of vaping is just candy flavoured quitting.

Non-smokers want to keep feeling smug about themselves, they want clean air and don’t want to see smokers, let alone smell them or share space with them. Harm reduction is for drug addicts.

Tobacco control wants a tobacco-free world, harm reduction is delaying the inevitable achievement of that. (Whatever that is?)

OK, I’m caricaturing all sides here but let’s call it distilling down so we can find the common ground. Now, as vapers, what do we want? A bit of all that! To be left alone, feel smug and not use tobacco! Harm reduction is what we are doing and what works for us. Not a lot of scope for common ground you may say.


Still, there’s hope. 

Smokers want to be left alone, they don’t want to be won over, however, left to their own devices and with accurate information they may switch. We did!

Non-smokers, without the propaganda from tobacco control, will accept vaping as part of the wide selection of vices people indulge in and see it as being no more threatening or unpleasant than coffee or beer, it might not be for them but it’s a free world.

Tobacco control if persuaded of the benefits of harm reduction will tolerate vaping, (though I fear it’s too late for smokeless tobacco) while never accepting it fully.


It’s a tough sell, we have to accept that right from the start. Harm reduction offers no benefit that abstinence doesn’t  offer. All it offers is another way to indulge a vice, it’s purely a pleasure. The health benefit, the social benefit, and any other benefits accrue to smokers who really don’t need it when they could just quit.

We have to persuade the opposition that quitting isn’t an option for some people and needn’t be an option if reducing the harm of smoking is the goal.

We have to persuade people that recreational nicotine use is as justifiable as recreational alcohol or caffeine use.

We have to persuade people that a tobacco-free world is not the same as a nicotine free world.


Carl is right on the money when he says advocates need to coalesce into a unified organization, that it needs to be well funded and be capable of consistent and persistent advocacy.

It needs clear aims, merely waiting for the latest tobacco control assault to become enraged about and rally against is a losing game. It needs to recognise that the harm inflicted on smokers includes the campaign of stigmatization which no one should be subjected to. (Smokers for that matter need to be shown that vaping offers them the possibility of keeping their smoking identity without the stigma).

It needs leadership!


British and some European Vapor advocates seem to be pursuing a strategy of subsuming the consumer movement into existing organized interests, specifically in public health power bases.

The people power evolved organically and those interests happen to be in a position to run with it – or co-opt it.

Well, this is the nub of it and it’s the piece of Carl’s article that got me thinking.


More to follow…..


3 thoughts on “Can’t see the people for the forest. part 1

  1. May I take issue with some of this, being the voice of Forest in Ireland. My name is John Mallon and I volunteered to speak for smokers almost seven years ago. I do not ‘work’ for Forest and my participation is voluntary and part time. Unlike the charities I am forced to debate with, I am not on a six figure salary, or any salary or wage in fact, The modest funding from tobacco companies pays my out of pocket and vouched expenses for travel when necessary, which only means I don’t lose money I don’t have in trying to stand up to the tyranny of public health.

    You wrote that, “Forest, is at best a few recalcitrant smokers congratulating themselves for ‘standing up to the man’ and viewed as contrary old men, (yes it’s all men).” Forest is not a members organization but we do rely on support from ordinary smokers, about half of whom are women. The head of Forest UK is a lifelong non-smoker and I am a vapor now. If Forest did not exist then the smoker’s viewpoint would not be heard at all. Instead all you would hear and read would be public health telling us what smokers think.

    “Forest is astroturf representing the tobacco industry and as long as that taint exists,” Forest does NOT, nor has it ever, represented the views of the tobacco companies. Indeed, beginning three years ago, I started to discuss the new fangled e-cigarette on air. I showed and demonstrated it on TV twice and spoke in favour of them over a hundred times across every radio station in Ireland. I bought two batteries and 170 refills fromSmoke Green in Waterford soon after they set up and was a dual user for a while. I switched completely six months ago. But I still speak up for smokers …… honestly and unashamedly! At 23% of the adult population this year according to the recent Healthy Ireland Report, there are still over a million smokers in Ireland, like it or not and they deserve to have their wishes taken into account.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry John, I’m slowly learning how this wordpress thing works. My sincere apologies for the late response to this.
      Thanks for this, I didn’t intend it to be an actual representation of Forest, more an exaggerate version of the public perception.


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