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Bridging the chasm

Reflecting on the animated debates during the most recent Global Tobacco & Nicotine Forum (GTNF) in New York City, it is easy to forget how different things were just a decade ago. The New York event hosted not only representatives from the leading tobacco manufacturers but also regulators and public health activists—people who would have been reluctant to share a room at the time when Tobacco Reporter conceived of the GTNF in 2007-2008.

In those early days, few tobacco companies were talking with each other, let alone with their critics. Those who were talking were not discussing the issues that the industry was about to face, as David O’Reilly, chairman emeritus of the GTNF advisory board and British American Tobacco’s (BAT) group scientific and R&D director, pointed out in New York.

The contrast with the tobacco control community could not have been greater. Well-organized and well-connected, health advocates were not only talking but also acting to bring down the industry—and tobacco suffered the consequences. Over the past decade, the industry has been forced to print graphic health warnings, strip its packaging of branding and pay ever-higher taxes, among other requirements.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the picture is more encouraging. The regulatory environment is as restrictive as ever, but at least a dialogue has developed—not just within the industry but also between the tobacco trade and its detractors. Leaders on both sides have realized that there’s more to be gained by talking than by fighting.

The shift has been facilitated, in part, by new technology. Vapor devices and tobacco-heating products can deliver nicotine without burning tobacco, generating far fewer toxins than combustible cigarettes do. The new generation of “tobacco” products has made harm reduction a more credible strategy in the eyes of some health activists, and it has given tobacco companies a viable alternative business.

Yet the GTNF deserves considerable credit for bringing stakeholders together. In 2012, the forum broke ground with the participation of four prominent public health activists. These pioneers braved considerable criticism within their own ranks for attending an “evil” tobacco event, but as time passed, more of their colleagues followed suit.

Perhaps even more remarkable than the dialogue it has fostered are the friendships that the GTNF has helped forge—friendships that do not respect arbitrary pro- and anti-tobacco lines, in the words of Kingsley Wheaton, BAT’s director of next-generation products. These relationships are born out of mutual respect, trust and, crucially, an overwhelming desire to make a difference, he observed in New York.

As Wheaton noted, that is very special, and there can be no greater advertisement for what the GTNF has accomplished and will achieve in the future.

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