The Advocacy Challenge
I run a reasonably sized business in Canada with about 30 employees and customers around the world. All kinds of challenges come up every day at VBI and there are many moments that leave me frustrated and flabbergasted. I do, however, manage to leave these frustrations at work and I’ll never be losing sleep over an issue related to my business. There’s only one thing that truly keeps me up at night, and that’s my work as President of the Canadian Vaping Association (CVA). While its rewarding intrinsically to fight the good fight and feel that you have the moral high ground as you do it, the practical reality of being an advocate in this industry often leads me down the path of wanting to give up and find a rock to crawl under. In this piece, I’ll try my best to outline why I feel that way after 2 years of the daily advocacy grind.
I did my degree in political science and for some time I actually wanted to run for office, but the truth is I knew nothing about the job or the people doing the job until I took on this role. Over the last year I’ve met with dozens of political leaders and their staff face to face and I have some takeaways from those experiences. Firstly, they are all generally good, well-meaning people. I haven’t really met one person in Canada holding political office that I felt was out to get the industry outright. I did, however, find plenty of politicians that were rushing into legislation having done minimal levels of actual research. I remember one of the first meetings I had was with a policy advisor that had actually drafted the Act in question. He had never been to a vape shop. In fact he had never seen a mod or a tank. And yet here we were, debating the merits of a fairly thick document that had been drafted to decide the fate of the industry. I could not wrap my head around this and asked a friend of mine who is actually a sitting politician and he said that most of the time the politicians themselves are so burdened by their schedules and commitments that they rely on their Policy-Advisors (PA’s) to draft the positions and the laws that they end up bringing forward. Depending on the ministry and the budget for the ministry, these PA’s can be 20-something’s that came straight out school on their first real job. The thought of me in the same position scared the living shit out of me. Did I as a graduate of a pretty good school in Ontario have all the answers needed to weigh in on this issue without doing a boatload of research and verification? Absolutely not, but I certainly would have thought I did. That’s really what leads us down the path we end up in in most cases. Politicians under pressure to get something out push the work downhill and somebody spits back something that looks like it could work. In order to expedite this they often lean on groups they trust, which unfortunately in our case tend to be the health groups that have the actual agenda. Democracy at its scary best.
This is the one that really gets me, as it can often be nasty and personal. It’s dealing with other groups or individuals that jump into the fray and start spraying the world with their advocacy Gatling gun. The infighting can be naive, petty, and misguided but its also typical of every industry that’s gone through growing pains as it aims to legitimise itself. It doesn’t stop it from stinging and driving me crazy though. There are certain rules that seem to bind a lot of these pop-up groups and individuals together though. They almost never look before they fire. I have a tendency to offer my direct phone number to all critics and new advocacy groups if they want to talk about their issues with what our organisation has been up to. The number of times that phone has rung is exactly zero. And to be honest, I’m not surprised. The easiest way to build a coalition is to rail against the establishment. So many choose to go this route as a shortcut versus trying to explain what they specifically want to accomplish. Typically this happens right around the time some new piece of legislation gets introduced. All of a sudden these advocates hear the bell and rally the troops without first checking to see if anyone’s already on the battlefield. Its not that its coming from a bad place, its quite the opposite actually. People genuinely want to make a difference and feel that they can. And they should feel this way, it’s just that its often done with a complete disregard for the greater effort, and that tunnel vision has a tendency to hurt more than it helps. I’ve heard it from dozens of politicians that I’ve worked with over the years. If they have six different groups hitting them with six different messages the likely outcome is that all will be ignored. In the end, as cliché as this sounds, working together is by far the best and most efficient way to accomplish our goals.
Media and the Scientific Community
This was an eye-opener for me when I got into this. I had, for the longest time, believed that what I read in the news was accurate or at least fact-checked before it ended up in my hands. I also held the belief that science was science, and if something showed up in a peer-reviewed journal that there must be some validity to it. Jumping into this role was a crash course in my depth of my own naivety. I’m utterly amazed at how easily the mainstream media can take a story and run with it, despite all of its inaccuracies. I’m even more appalled at the way science is often manipulated to serve the very specific purposes of its creators. I actually think this is perhaps the most unnerving part of this experience. When you have a group like the UCSF, led by Stanton Glantz, who continually churns out junk science strictly to produce sensational headlines it always feels like you’re fighting uphill. The relationship between the media and groups like Glantz’s is toxic and I’m not sure there is a way to fight against it effectively. Every time we receive news like the endorsement from the Royal College of Physicians we get hit with some other fabricated study about the gateway theory and the reality is that these do cancel each other out in the eyes of the general public. The irony is that guys like Glantz are, in their minds at least, fighting against big tobacco and as a result walk away thinking that the ends justify the means. The fact that they may end up handing the industry to big tobacco through the regulations they push forward seems to be completely lost on them.
In a nutshell, advocacy is a grind. I knew this when I got into it but I have to tell you it’s a lot more taxing professionally and personally than I could have imagined. Having said that, its incredibly important that good people stay in the fight. We’re up against pretty incredible odds but we can move the needle if we stay focused and fight together.
- Beju Lakhani