(Part 3 of 3 – read 1 and 2)
From the Desk of MIT: I have had more heartburn about this series on vaping than anything I have ever written, and also more pressure to present things in a certain way. I started this blog solely as a way to work through my own frustrations at how this life-changing technology was being unfairly attacked with junk science, political chicanery, underhanded business practices, and the release of a whole cadre of holier-than-thou Crazy Cat Lady Activists (I’d really like to know who the hell is dancing naked in a forest somewhere to summon them). Not to mention how poorly the industry seemed to be representing itself to the public, and how ineffectual it was in responding to the multi-faceted attacks against it. The consequence of failure here is truly tragic, and people need to understand that. Vaping isn’t primarily a hobby, a fad, or a game; vaping is a way to actually save people’s lives – and it’s a solution created by the people in response to a massive governmental and public health failure. Don’t let that fact be lost on you. And that failure grows deeper and more troubling with each media-fueled attack on vaping, in spite of the mounting evidence that supports the benefits of this technology.
It’s such dirty play, and I am sickened by how it highlights both our loss of personal freedoms, as well as how willing some people are to profit from the unnecessary pain and suffering of others who they don’t have to personally watch wither and die.
Still, I had no clue that my thoughts and opinions would resonate with so many people around the world. These posts have definitely traveled – each day they continue to grow and are being actively shared, quoted, linked to, and talked about in more than 120 countries so far. On one hand it amazes me – and on the other it scares the crap out of me. I never claimed to be the smartest person in the room – just someone who has a perspective and an obvious passion for the outcome of this moment in history. It has also brought out different factions of the pro-vape movement, who all have differing opinions on where the challenges are and which strategy I should promote to solve them.
I’ve decided to stick with my original thoughts. You don’t have to agree with me; but you do have to do something if vaping is to stay a viable solution to the cigarette-fueled epidemic of death.
That said, here is the final essay.
What’s an elephant doing in here?
The current debate around “vaping” really is a fundamental argument about personal freedoms, and whether governmental involvement in every area of life is beneficial or not. It’s ultimately about your individual right to live your life as you choose.
In these United States for example, the Constitution is the founding document that clearly defines the responsibilities and limitations of the government; it was designed to provide a centralized structure for the nation, while simultaneously protecting citizens from the potential abuses of what could someday become a bloated, corrupt, and intrusive leadership (surprise!). It was drafted, after all, by people who had just rebelled against a corrupt and intrusive monarchy; who generally believed that every individual had certain guaranteed liberties – called natural or God-given rights – solely because they existed as human beings. In concept, it created a simple bureaucracy that would corporately protect the people as they pursued their individual lives, liberty, and happiness.
Unfortunately, even with that as the foundation, we still managed to spin out of control over the subsequent two centuries; resulting in a staggeringly oppressive behemoth in Washington DC that fosters tiny dictators all of the way down to the lowest levels of municipal government. We have come to a point in our history where the majority of people out there either willfully disregard the universal principles of freedom out of self-interest, or they are too ignorant or apathetic to care.
“The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
– Ronald Reagan
Think about it, has there ever been a societal attempt at governance that didn’t ultimately end in corruption and abuse on some level? There is clearly something about human nature that makes us all predisposed to seeking our own freedoms, while simultaneously imposing our will on others when given the opportunity. From the uber-religious to the tree-huggers, everyone does it. If you give one person or group of people – however benevolent they may initially be – power over other people, you can bet that it will turn to crap eventually.
Now, before you start throwing philosophical or sociopolitical arguments at me; anti-religion, anti-capitalism, anti-socialism, anti-Dead White Guys Who Owned Slaves, anti-whatever; the point I am making is a simple one. We all have the inherent right to live, and we have the inherent right to make our own choices in life – as long as we are not impacting somebody else’s right to do the same. Inherent means that these rights are yours just for being born; they are not a gift from some government agency, and they were not bestowed upon you by an old parchment that’s under glass in an ornate building somewhere. They just are.
Truth is, if you want to smoke old tires, vape Windex, or throw yourself off of a cliff, you should be able to do all of those things without legislative interference – as long as you aren’t exhaling into someone else’s face, or crashing like a bag of wet cement through a family’s beach umbrella.
We should all at least be in agreement that the universe has bestowed upon us the natural right to do whatever the hell we want with our bodies – as long as we and our families are willing to foot the bill.
In a reasonable world, that would end the debate. But, since we don’t live in a reasonable world, simply demanding it – even with a hashtag – won’t make it happen. Sorry.
So…let’s play the game.
In my past life, I had a position where I was commonly contacted by the media for statements or information. After an embarrassing flub with a large newspaper in California, where I didn’t fully anticipate how my words might be used, I was shipped off to media response training. Once I got over my anger with the butthead reporter (or not), my embarrassment within the organization, and my guilt over others being required to clean up my little mess, I actually learned something.
And it forever changed the way that I perceive both the media and public opinion. More on that in a minute.
I have already established that I believe vaping to be the most significant health breakthrough of all time, considering there are hundreds of millions of current cigarette smoking parents, siblings, and friends around the world who could live longer, fuller, happier lives if they just started doing it. My motivation, which you have probably caught onto by this point, is to try and help push that agenda however I can. We need to win.
So this is where I get to that re-framing part.
From what I can see, the pro-vaping team has been primarily playing defense – with the occasional crazy Leroy Jenkins running his own offensive route, but instead of making a touchdown, he usually only succeeds in tackling a cheerleader or some poor kid in a wheelchair on the sidelines as part of a Make-A-Wish Foundation event. Not good from a public relations standpoint. But the problem with always playing defense is that no matter how strong you are, you constantly lose ground.
Especially if you don’t realize that you’re playing the wrong game.
Regardless of what motivates the anti-vaping forces; money, politics, idealism, publicity, mental illness, whatever – does the reason actually matter? – they understand the importance of targeting public opinion – which is the real end-zone in this game. You see, they are not attacking you with their press releases and worthless scientific studies; they are building public opinion. It doesn’t actually matter if they are lying, cooking stats, or lighting teenagers on fire themselves for good battery-explosion photos. They ignore your responses, your reasoning, and your facts because you are actually irrelevant to their strategy.
What I learned from my media debacle is this; public opinion is rarely (read: never) swayed with widespread reason and thoughtful conversation. Hell, even facts don’t usually matter. The masses of people slowly grazing their way across the grassy field of life only notice headlines, soundbites, pop-ups, and one-liners; and it’s from these simple, repetitive things that they emotionally form group opinions on complex topics. My favorite line from Men in Black is this: “A person is smart, but people are dumb.”
It doesn’t matter if you have a world-changing idea – if you can’t secure the support of the general public, or at least get positive indifference, you lose. Capitalizing on this knowledge, as well as on Washington’s tendency to go with anything that keeps the populace most pacified at the moment, is the foundation of the anti-vaping strategy. The vaping industry has been running around trying to respond to attacks that are only being launched to influence passive observers – not to win against you. Their messages hit the intended target the moment they are released; your response or counter-attack is inconsequential.
Put a different way, we’ve been swinging at pitches long after the other team is gone, the sodium lights are cold, and the stands are empty.
Right now, the general public believes the following about vaping: it is run by Big Tobacco; it causes cancer; it causes Popcorn Lung; it ruins children; it keeps people chained to addiction; it is worse than cigarettes; it ruins children; it causes blast injuries; it hasn’t been studied enough; it ruins children; it exposes users to formaldehyde, heavy metals, and hipsters with beards; it ignites vehicles and homes; it ruins children; it is poisonous to the touch; it is a Chinese tactic to destroy America; and finally, that it ruins children.
So what to do? How about we start by getting onto the right battlefield – the one filled with people in La-Z-Boy chairs, scratching their bellies, and falling asleep to reruns of Lost. We need to start massively targeting public opinion, not the opposition. This, by the way, is why the vape industry’s image is so damned critical. Go back and reread Part II with the perspective of actually needing the non-vaping public to like you. And the next time you say, “Screw you, it’s my right to vape,” you’ll see that needle fall farther down the scale. Again, it doesn’t matter that it is your right. Righteous indignation only works once the public actually gives a crap about you and your plight. And they don’t right now.
You really want to win this? Then we need to start hammering away with constant, simple, positive, and repetitive messages about the harm reduction benefits of vaping for cigarette smokers – aimed at the public; not other vapers and not the opposition. There is no law against general improved lifestyle claims. There is no law against profiling former smokers who now vape. There is no law against showing happy, normal people carrying vape devices. There is no law against headlining the Public Health England or Royal College of Physicians conclusions on vaping. Start promoting the hell out of people whose lives are now better because they quit smoking and started vaping – real, personal stories. And all of the pro-vaping associations, research organizations, and PR firms need to collaboratively draft 3-5 consistent talking points and all be giving the same message through every possible medium. That’s all the opposition has done – that’s why a University “researcher,” a CDC press officer, and a Crazy Cat Lady who somehow managed to get elected to congress, are all giving the exact same message.
Of social proof and harm reduction.
Two final thoughts. First, we need to pursue more social proof as an essential part of our campaign. Like it or not, blitzing the public with famous and/or highly respected individuals who either vape or support vaping are like tactical nuclear strikes. Why do you think every vaper you know shares the photos of celebrities vaping? Because society (i.e., the general public) loves celebrity, and if cool people are doing what we do, then that makes us cool by association, right? Welcome to Marketing 101. And my experience is that the six degrees of separation theory is generally valid; meaning that there are people reading this who can already get in touch with those celebrities and highly respected individuals. If convinced of the widespread societal benefit of just publicly supporting what they are already doing, those high-profile folks will gain the attention of the people dozing in their La-Z-Boys.
Again, this will also only work if we can change the industry’s image and message; you’re never going to get an A-lister or a Nobel winner to appear in support of convention centers filled with vape clouds and girls in Daisy Dukes. #truth
As for the harm reduction strategy in promoting vaping for cigarette smokers, society has already shown that it supports that concept over abstinence in human behaviors. And if winning your right to vape is to be fought on the field of public opinion, targeting what the public has already shown support for is a smart tactic. If you’re going to teach kids how to use condoms and dental dams because they’re going to have sex anyway, or provide junkies with clean needles because they are going to shoot up anyway, then how can you truly deny cigarette smokers – who are clearly going to smoke anyway, no matter how much you shame and isolate them – a less harmful alternative? At least 95% less harmful according to the British Government, right?
The choice is yours. Continue the current schizophrenic battle against the thousand-headed hydra that is the anti-vaping movement, or appeal to the distracted masses who have proven to be unstoppable in changing the culture if properly intrigued. Before you decide, take time to research the strategies used by the marijuana, gay marriage, and euthanasia movements. You may be surprised.
I wish us luck; a billion lives are depending on the outcome.