The world’s annual vaping advocacy shindig, the Global Forum on Nicotine, was held for the 8th time last week, in Liverpool, England. Run over two days on 17 and 18 June. Opening the conference , Harry Shapiro “executive editor” at the conference’s organisers Knowledge Action Change (KAC), lamented that the small live audience who attended in Liverpool was rather thin on the ground with public health experts. But with the  conference being live-screened globally, he excitedly promised that  Netflix and CNN should “eat your hearts out”.

Three days after the conference kick-off, the live stream audience hit all of  778 for day one, falling to 450 on day two. In previous years, those running it have posted all individual presentations and discussions on YouTube. The cumulative 2020 viewing data make interesting reading as a window into the size of the global community of vaping activists keen to watch their dear leaders. The table below shows the total viewing numbers for 36 sessions in the June 2020 fully online GFN meeting during the global COVID-19 pandemic across the next 12 months, and the viewers for the live streaming over the two days of  the 2021 conference (data accessed 20 Jun 2021).

SPEAKERS                                            Youtube hits 1 year on (per day)              
Welcome 11 June (day 1)
Stimson287 (0.77)
Sweanor159 (0.43)
Perspectives: setting the scene
Bates454 (1.21)
Glover191 (0.51)
Godfrey120 (0.32)
Virginio131 (0.35)
Q&A214 (0.57)
Nicotine science, ethics and human rights
Nadelmann116 (0.31)
Conley128 (0.34)
Chowdhury96   (0.26)
Gilchrist372 (0.99)
Oysten132 (0.35)
Patten129 (0.34)
Nadelmann116 (0.31)
Michael Russell Oration
Stimson83   (0.22)
Ross221 (0.59)
Stimson53   (0.14)
12 June (day 2)
COVID19 and other epidemics: the challenges for tobacco harm reduction science
Notley73  (0.19)
Polosa1117 (2.98)
Farsalinos601 (1.60)
Matzner107 (0.29)
Sussman137 (0.37)
Q&A104 (0.28)
Tobacco harm reduction: taking stock on regulation
Fottea 90 (0.24)
Philips147 (0.39)
Kovacevic135 (0.36)
Fottea114 (0.30)
Du Plessis151 (0.40)
MacGuill141 (0.38)
Tobacco harm reduction: risks and benefits
McGirr65   (0.17)
Wodak79   (0.21)
Babaian105 (0.28)
Sucharitha124 (0.33)
Ngema107 (0.28)
Closing remarks
*Stimson78 (0.21)
Mean (2020)189 (0.49)
Day 1 live stream (2020)1704
Day 2 live stream (2020)1130
Day 1 live stream (2021)778
Day 2 live stream (2021)450

With billions around the world in lockdown over weeks and months, many  of us found time to binge on mini-series and movies. But not an awful lot found the time to feast on the offerings from the 2020 GFN conference. Just two speakers’ magnetism and compelling messages managed to attract more than 500 viewers in the whole year following their presentations, with the average across all 36 sessions being 189, or less than one viewer every two days. Australia’s own Alex Wodak pulled 79 views in 373 days.

This desultory attention is in spite of the conference organisers, KAC, having received $US1,051,364 (2017-2018); $US1,378,366 (2019) and $US937,191 (2020), from the fully Philip Morris International funded Foundation for a SmokeFree World. Makes you wonder what their KPI targets were …

A colleague very unkindly pointed out that this amateur video of my old band singing a reworked Leader of the Pack tribute to Australia’s former health minister Nicola Roxon has had 1,628 views, more than double the total live-stream viewing audience for Day 1 of the 2021 conference. And even my crooning an Elvis cover with a Turkish wedding band on a boat on the Bosphorus has had 192 hits, placing it ahead of hits for 27 of the 36 2020 GFN videos.

The opening presentation

Fiona Patten Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald

This year’s opening “keynote” presentation was by Fiona Patten, the sole state politician elected to represent the Reason Party (formerly the Sex Party) in Victoria. Her talk, which you can watch here  traversed several tenets of modern vaping theology with the aplomb we have come to expect from vaping advocates.

In an often rambling talk, Patten made the following points:

  • Australian governments are making nicotine vapers into “criminals” (she’s presumably  alluding here to those “criminals” who will, from October, refuse to get the required prescription for legal nicotine vaping of exactly the kind  that somehow millions of Australians who take prescribed drugs every day have managed to live with for decades)
  • Political parties refuse to accept donations from Big Tobacco, yet they still “protect” it. (quite clearly, Big Tobacco is so protected in Australia that all companies have long closed their local factories. Go and put the kettle on while you read a long list here of all the ways that Australian governments have “protected” the tobacco industry, for example the highest taxes in the world, banning smoking in all indoor areas, plain packaging, display bans etc).
  • Health expertise like that provided to the government by the NHMRC in the early 1960s on the dangers of smoking was laudable, but governments in those days didn’t act. And now with vaping, it’s exactly the same! (“we are seeing this history repeat itself” as “report after report, expert after expert have told the government that that [vaping] can save lives”). What’s rather awkward here though, is that the NHMRC is one of many health and medical expert agencies in Australia which is very much not marching in step with open-slather vaping regulation being advocated by nearly all of vaping’s disciples.
  • With COVID-19, the Australian government has emphasised repeatedly that we all must “listen to the evidence and the experts”. But when it comes to vaping, the duffers just won’t listen to the right experts. Strangely, they listen to agencies with expertise and track records in assessing evidence and with decades of successful involvement in tobacco control. Fiona will be “holding [these agencies] to account”.
  • “When we see science being questioned like this, it opens the door to vaccine hesitancy, to QANON.” Yes, she actually said this. So please understand that the TGA, the NHMRC, the Royal Colleges of Physicians and GPs, the Thoracic Society, the Heart Foundation, all state and federal health departments, the Lung Foundation, the AMA, VicHealth and many more are abetting vaccine hesitancy and QANON. You know it makes sense.
  • If governments acted on vaping in the ways she supports “we would save 20,000 lives, immediately.” Note this: “immediately”. What on earth are we to make of that?

Meanwhile, here’s what tobacco control, so often vilified by vaping messiahs has and will achieve  in Australia.

Without tobacco control, there would have been an estimated 392,116 lung cancer deaths over the period 1956–2015; of these 20% (78,925 deaths; 75,839 males, 3086 females) have been averted due to tobacco control. However, if past and current measures continue to have the expected effect, an estimated 1.9 million deaths (1,579,515 males, 320,856 females; 67% of future lung cancer deaths) will be averted in 2016–2100.

The most interesting part of her presentation was her obvious dis-ease with the company that her embrace of vaping has put her in. She said “politicians who say [about COVID-19] ‘let the virus rip, we can’t cope with anymore lockdowns. We can’t have anymore  mask wearing, quarantine should end, self-isolation should end … some of those are the same people that support vaping in Australia. So that’s fairly uncomfortable bedfellows for me anyway.”

Patten’s boutique Reason Party is presumably designed to appeal to voters who put evidence at the centre of their assessment of government policy and are disillusioned with the major parties. So she’s big on saying she supports “evidence”, provided the evidence is compatible with what she wants to see happen with vaping policy. The ragbag of far right politicians who have been prominent in supporting vaping in Australia clearly make her uneasy. At the end of her presentation she’s asked to elaborate on her comment about the “unholy alliance” with such people to progress things. Here she stammers out a fractured response about having to team with “climate deniers … let-the- virus-rip types of politicians” saying almost apologetically “we take support whenever we can get it”.

Goethe wrote “Tell me with whom you associate and I’ll tell you who you are.” I wonder how many of her current and potential political supporters who (like me) would applaud her policy advocacy on issues like  voluntary assisted dying, pill testing, gambling, climate change, COVID-19, and social housing would recoil at her judgement on vaping?