Anti-vejp group spreads message at WHO conference - vejpers ejected

Weather activists and anti-tobacco fanatics. Dedicated addiction researchers and prohibitionists. All gathered in Panama City to attend, monitor and comment on the tenth meeting of the WHO Tobacco Convention, COP10. Vejpkollen took the pulse of two movements fighting for, and against, the alternatives to cigarettes.

After a few chaotic hours and delays, the WHO opened the 10th session of the Tobacco Convention. From the first speeches, the message was clear: according to the WHO Tobacco Control Secretariat, the availability of new forms of nicotine products such as e-cigarettes and nicotine pouches is a problem that needs to be addressed. At the same time, those who think differently did not get a word in edgewise. At least inside the meeting.

'Stop the tobacco companies - ban e-cigarettes'

The small group of activists gathered outside the Panama Convention Centre are certainly loud, but are reluctant to talk to anyone, it turns out. The COP10 meeting is a secretive affair, with only selected journalists allowed access to delegates and the activist groups attending as audience members. The group Salud Justa from Mexico is one of the groups that will be in the audience during the week-long meeting. Carrying angry placards, bright white T-shirts and a small staff of photographers and flyers with vejps crossed out, they posed on a small patch of grass a few metres from the conference centre.

"We only talk to the media inside the premises" announces one of the activists when Vejpkollen asks what they are doing. 

A member of the group simultaneously shoves a camera in the face of a Belgian reporter standing next to him. He backs away.

"They seem to be more interested in filming people without asking first, than saying what they actually stand for," the journalist says afterwards, slightly annoyed.

Avoiding publicity

The COP10 meeting in Panama is not receiving much attention in the mainstream media. According to critics, this is probably a tactic by the WHO Secretariat to avoid 'bad' publicity. Nicotine is a field where many interests compete for attention. Tobacco companies, organised consumer groups, addiction researchers and other stakeholders naturally have different views from anti-tobacco activists, pharmaceutical companies, government officials and WHO representatives. Nevertheless, there is a heated debate on harm reduction in the scientific community, ranging from the health risks and relative risks of nicotine use.

The other perspective on nicotine

While activist groups organised private seminars and handed out anti-vejp related materials, including disposable e-cigarettes with the text "cancer flavour", to delegates at COP10, the American Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) organised its own conference with an alternative focus on the Tobacco Convention. The TPA wanted to emphasise harm minimisation for smokers and therefore brought a consumer perspective to the issue of tobacco control. And unlike the WHO conference, the media was welcomed with open arms.

"The WHO is tax-funded. And if something is paid for by taxpayers' money, the meeting should be open to the public. COP10, on the other hand, is taking place completely without the participation of the people or representatives from those who actually pay and are most affected by what happens inside. We find this completely unacceptable. That's why we wanted to organise a conference that highlights the voice of the people." says David Williams, CEO of TPA to Vejpkollen when we meet between seminars at the small hotel in the centre of Panama City, a few kilometres from the gigantic Panama Conference Centre where the WHO is located.

"A debate that WHO does not want"

The TPA aptly called its conference "Good COP - Conference of the People", with doctors, vejpers, snus users, researchers and commentators who have become symbols of an alternative solution to the tobacco issue. Harm reduction, whether it's individuals quitting smoking with the help of e-cigarettes or tobacco companies shifting their profits from cigarettes to nicotine pouches, is now a global phenomenon that seriously challenges the traditional model of reducing the harms of smoking in the world.

"A debate on harm minimisation, harm reduction or other issues related to new nicotine products, a topic that is otherwise the focus of the negotiations at COP10, is the last thing you want in the meeting" says Martin Cullip, who moderated several Good COP seminars.

"Any consumer or harm reduction organisation that applied for accreditation to COP10 was turned down by the WHO. And those who for some reason got through were kicked out during the opening session," Mr Cullip told Vejpkollen.

Surrounded by guards

One of those shown the door at COP10 was vejpar, infuencer and harm reduction activist Julio Ruades. His YouTube channel has over half a million followers and covers much of the Spanish-speaking world. Julio Ruades took his camera and started streaming live from the reception hall, before COPO10 was officially inaugurated.

"They let me stay for a while and I interviewed some delegates from Brazil and representatives from other media. Then everything went very fast, I was surrounded by guards and then I just had to go out again," Julio Ruades told Vejpkollen.

Resistance from authorities

Julio Ruades was neither surprised nor disappointed by the reception. "He has been there before," he says. The last time was at a conference in Spain on harm minimisation and smoking. The health authorities tried to stop the event, resulting in the loss of the venue they were supposed to use.

"There are powerful interests that are doing everything they can to prevent e-cigarette users from having a voice. These products have saved our lives and millions of people need access to their vapes. My message is to never give up and do everything you can to be seen and heard," Julio Ruades told Vejpkollen.

COP10 in Panama City

COP10 took place in Panama City on 5-10 February. Vejpkollen was there and reports on the events surrounding the meeting. The Taxpayer Protection Alliance's "GoodCOP/BadCOP" conference took place during the same period and is being followed via various social media.

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