WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum, unlike the Global Forum on Nicotine in Warsaw, Poland (where I also attended and corresponded), is the world’s preeminent event for the tobacco giants like Altria Group and British American Tobacco. A showcase of the industry’s so-called social responsibility.

Honestly, the only reason why I traveled to D.C. for this event was due to the attendance of a few select speakers like Marewa Glover of New Zealand and David Sweanor of Canada, both colleagues in some capacity.

After an hour and a half commute with my trusty Lyft driver, I was in familiar territory. The Lincoln Memorial. The Watergate Hotel. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The National Mall. I was finally in the district, with my driver Muhammed dodging traffic so that I can arrive at the GTNF venue at a reasonable hour.

The Four Seasons Hotel off of Pennsylvania Avenue is honestly not as elegant on the outside as it is on the inside. Mind you, this hotel is still a five-star establishment with elegant chandeliers, a series of deco passages, and a moderately-sized conference area.

Flustered from the drive-in from Chantilly and the heat and humidity, I entered the hotel’s front lobby.

The front desk staffer asked, “How can I help you, sir?”

“Yes, I am looking for the conference center.”

“Down this hall to the stairs. Take the stairs to the lower level.”

“Thank you,” I said, beginning my dive into the bowels of the building.

Enemy, or friend

I went down the hall, took the stairs to the lower level, and I immediately ran into a small cluster of people working at the registration desks.

“Hello, sir. How can we help you?”

“Hi, I’m looking for the media registration,” I replied to the cheerful woman. After I uttered those words, her smile disappeared and pointed to the side of the stairwell and what looks as if a small collapsible table with a sign saying “media” taped to it.

Feeling the awkwardness, I half smiled and cordially thanked the woman and walked over to the table.

Immediately, the gentleman who was sitting at the table doing something on his cell phone popped up with excitement. A welcomed contrast from my prior interaction.

“Hi, sir!” I swear I was getting tired of the “sir” salutation. “Are you with the press?”

I replied to this man’s enthusiasm: “Yes, I am! I’m Michael McGrady, and I am here for Vaping Post.”

“Oh, yes! You are the last one to receive your credential,” he said smiling. All I wanted to do in reply was give him a long laundry list of reasons why I was late: the D.C. traffic, my hangover, no sleep. But, it didn’t seem like he would care.

“Yeah, I know,” I replied forcing a slight chuckle. “It was a busy morning.”

“Not a problem. You got here just on time. Howard Willard just concluded his keynote.”

Howard Willard is the CEO and chairman of Altria Group, the parent company to Philip Morris USA (don’t be confused with Philip Morris International) and the leader of the board majority that acquired a multi-billion-dollar 35 percent holding in Juul Labs.

I know this man’s work well. I just smiled again, and said: “Wonderful.”

“Go down those stairs over there to get to the main ballroom,” he said. I started to walk toward the second set of stairs when the kind man at the media table stopped me: “Also, no recording in the main ballroom, and no pictures. We will be sure to send you audio and pictures when you request it from the press office.”

“That’s a strange way to operate,” I thought. However, I was here to do a job: report from a den of enemies and, oddly enough, allies.

I started to get acclimated to the environment. Hundreds of people were crammed into such a small space. People of all professional backgrounds, age, gender, and nationality. Truly, a literal global event as the name suggests.

I overheard that members of the Bahrainian parliament were in attendance. For what reasons, I wouldn’t know.

People were being herded back into the main ballroom for the next keynote.

Tom Miller, the attorney general of the state of Iowa, was due to speak about harm reduction’s role in the vertical of legalese. Miller, an honest to God advocate for vaping, is a man of mixed feelings for me.

He has done much to defend vaping and tobacco harm reduction at the state and national levels. However, it was revealed a few months ago that he openly coordinated with Juul’s lobbying team to push advocacy and education programming in favor of the company’s products.
“Really? This guy is just another one of these powerbrokers that fell for Juul’s bullshit,” I told myself. However, he is one of those that you want on your side when you’re fighting against aggressive policies that will kill independent vape and craft tobacco like cigars.
It was also ironic to hear him speak, given the news that Juul canned CEO Kevin Burns for a former tobacco executive and that the company was ceasing all of its lobbying and advertisement activities in the United States.
The crowd packed in like sardines to listen to Miller. I passed. The real person who I wanted to hear speak was Ricardo Oberlander, the CEO, and chairman of the publicly-traded British American Tobacco subsidiary, Reynolds American.
Cheers from Miller’s speech signaled me to move into the main ballroom after a few minutes of skulking in the vestibule outside the main ballroom. Dodging people sitting, I was able to find a space in the corner of the room by the service door.
I sat down on the floor and waited.
Before I knew it, the emcee climbed onto the stage and began to introduce Oberlander.
To applause, mixed with pure excitement and some sarcasm, Oberlander took the stage and began speaking.
Ricardo Oberlander (Reynolds American CEO) started talking about his company’s social responsibility efforts. This, that. You know the spiel. However, I started to get angry with his words about regulations.
He started talking about his company’s social responsibility efforts. This, that. You know the spiel. However, I started to get angry with his words about regulations.
“Adults must have product choices that are sufficiently desirable so that they will make the choices inherent in migrating along the risk continuum,” he said. “This is the core of more choice, less risk. It requires insights into the preferences of adult consumers and also being pragmatic about our approach.”
This is a very socially responsible statement. Chances are, it truly is. However, what is troubling from Oberlander is the willingness exuded in his voice to comply with regulations. Don’t get me wrong, balanced rulemaking is needed to prevent adverse effects on populations. These regulations are useless, however, when they are designed only for billion-dollar companies who can afford Tobacco 21-linked customer loss or flagrant intent to demonize competitors who are unable to comply with the FDA’s compliance policies under the premarket product approval pathway.
I had a lot to take in. I was able to hear the excellent addresses of independent experts like David Sweanor, Marewa Glover, Brad Rodu, David Levy, and others—the real reasons for my attendance at GTNF. All of them did a great job describing the science and epidemiological proof behind tobacco harm reduction and risk-reduced products. However, my anger about Oberlander’s words still coursed their way through my body.

Other players, too many to count

Companies like E-Alternative Solutions and Turning Point Brands aren’t small companies. However, these firms are independent manufacturers of mainly modified-risk tobacco products and smoke-free brands that are all in some capacity safer than traditional cigarettes. These companies have the ability to do something important. No, not be the next Juul. But, these companies are, though still controversial, are firms that I would much rather side with when it comes to standing up for responsible and balanced regulation.
Oberlander, a man that I have long despised during his tenure at Reynolds American, is not that partner to stand up for a reformed premarket approval application process.
Though it was off the record and merely a personal chat, a director of FDA Science from Turning Point Brands agreed with me and my concerns that these gargantuan tobacco companies will kill thousands of businesses by the design of a regulatory framework they can only afford.
Since this was an off the record conversation, I will omit this scientist’s name and much of what I am recollecting is very generalized and paraphrased. However, she told me briefly that she felt as if her employer could lose millions due to the costs of the premarket applications process.
This was the sentiment of many of the industry attendees to this conference. Everyone I interacted with in a personal capacity represented firms that are not owned by the typical tobacco-vape players. Yeah, most of these small and medium companies in attendance sell cigars, rolling papers, oral tobacco, and a plethora of electronic nicotine delivery systems (both pods and open tank systems). However, they are not big tobacco in my belief.
These are firms that are free to stand up against the conformity push by men like Oberlander and Willard. Everyone said they despised the fact that they had to play in the same spaces as these large firms. However, what I found troubling, was that some believe that playing the PMTA game the way the big boys want you to is the only way to survive. Luckily, many of the others believe that they have a stake in the independent industry to stand up for and defend against disproportionate FDA regulations only designed for billion-dollar entities. Not million-dollar entities that don’t sell cigarettes, if we break this down.
Juul, Altria, BAT, JTI, and in some ways PMI, are only in the business of self-preservation. I mention PMI differently because we do have to accept the fact that they are the only company out of all of these billion-dollar firms to really take a more measured approach in their policy lobbying and is one of the only firms, along with others like Swedish Match, to produce and get approved risk-reduced products like IQOS (which, if I’m honest, is a product I really enjoy) and Zyn tobacco-free nicotine pouches (another product I like), respectively, for U.S. consumers. So, who do we trust?

Internalizing the industry’s pain

At the end of it all, the only thing that was prominent to my mind was home. My small mountain town of only a few thousand people. My fresh air. My wife. A hit of an NJOY (also independent of tobacco) disposable menthol vape. A pint of Miller Lite at the local bar.

In towns like mine, there are only one or two vape shops. They don’t stock Juul or really any product produced by companies like Altria, BAT, or Philip Morris International. These people make their own liquids. I know these people by name. They’re my friends. We have beers once a week.

The PMTA rules are too strict. These rules threaten my friends and the hundreds of shop owners that I’ve interviewed and worked with. How is that not a ban?

Why would you want to ruin that? Trump’s administration might be backing off from a flavor “ban.” However, the truth is that existing regulations will still force a massive market exodus of small to medium-sized manufacturers, local shop owners, and DIY mixers. Call it a premarket tobacco application. Call it a prohibition. It doesn’t matter. Because, at the end of the day, you are still forcing good honest companies to close down indefinitely.

The PMTA rules are too strict. These rules threaten my friends and the hundreds of shop owners that I’ve interviewed and worked with. How is that not a ban?

As I am finishing this piece, I am eating an atrociously disgusting Subway sandwich at gate Z7 in the Washington Dulles airport. Crowds are slowly trickling in to board a bumpy flight home. What are the odds these people even care about the issues facing nicotine users? Those odds are slim. I don’t say that to be condescending. I say that to further argue the point that groupthink in an echo-chamber can diminish innovation, public health applications, and improvements to the access of available alternative nicotine products.

Negative change is still coming

As I boarded my flight, my contacts in Congress all sent me notes from a hearing that acting FDA commissioner Ned Sharpless testified at.

After quickly reading through the transcripts they sent me, my mind was boggled. The commissioner categorically declared that flavors are not going to be banned, despite the rhetoric from the Trump administration and the tobacco-control community.

However, I was still uneasy. Sharpless still leads an agency that is tasked by law and various federal courts to regulate tobacco and nicotine products under the strict guidelines of the Tobacco Control Act of 2009. I quickly reformed my confusion and slight joy.

The flight attendants were doing their safety checks and tutorials for how to not die if the plane suddenly crashes lands on water.

I repeated to myself an evident truth. FDA still pushes prohibition, in some form or another. Don’t forget that the premarket approval process is a cost-prohibitive means to force the closure of the thousands of small companies that can’t afford compliance across the country. By design, prohibition is still coming. The Big tobacco companies, Juul, the Walmart of Vaping, and medium-sized firms if they are lucky will be the only players left. That isn’t right.

I was unable to sleep on the plane. Instead, I asked the flight attendant for two vodka cranberries (on Frontier Airlines, crappy Tito’s vodka shooters and watered down cranberry juice). I kicked them both back, closed my eyes, and thought about home.

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Michael McGrady is a columnist for Vaping Post's English edition. He is a critically acclaimed journalist with awards and recognition from across the industry. He was a finalist for ECigClick's annual vape awards in 2019 and 2020, a KAC Tobacco Harm Reduction Scholarship Fellow in 2019, among other honours. He is also the host of Vaping Weekly, the Post's podcast. All articles express his own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the Editor's view.