Brent: Hi, I'm Brent Stafford, and welcome to another edition of Reg Watch on GFN TV. For millions of smokers across the world, it's a love hate relationship with their favorite brand of cigarette. You love the taste and the feel in your hand and on your your lips. And of course, there's the nicotine with that sweet rush and ever so calm feeling. So what's the problem? Well, smoking is likely killing you and you know it. But it's so hard to quit, which is why public health's war on vaping is so odious to the tens of millions of former smokers who quit thanks to vaping. Joining us today to discuss consumer advocacy for nicotine vaping products is Jeffrey Zamora, director of social media at INNCO, the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations, and board member at ARDT Iberoamerica, a consumer advocacy organization that promotes and defends tobacco harm reduction in Latin America. Jeffrey, thanks for coming on the show.
Jeffrey: Thank you very much for having me, Brent.
Brent: So, before we dive into vaping advocacy in Latin America, tell us, did you love smoking?
Jeffrey: Well, I did enjoy it a lot, to be honest. I smoked for 17 years, so that means that I really like it. Right. I used to smoke a couple of packs a day, almost 40 cigarettes per day. So I did enjoy it, especially if it was attached to some other activities, perhaps a beer, a wine, something you do like, how it goes, how it pairs together. So, yeah, I quite enjoy it, to be honest.
Brent: So tell us about your journey from smoker to vapor.
Jeffrey: I didn't want to quit smoking, to be honest. I knew from the millions of campaigns and things that are around and information that it was actually not a healthy habit. But I didn't want to quit. So I bought a vape device, an eagle like vaping from the old days to reduce the number of cigarettes that I smoke or to smoke or to use it on the places that I could not smoke. So I didn't want to quit. It was kind of an accident, to be honest. And I bought a vape pen, then I bought another kind of a mod, and then I quit without even thinking, you know? Pretty much I just stopped smoking and started using the vape device a lot more. So, yeah, it was kind of an accident.
Brent: You are the quintessential accidental quitter.
Jeffrey: Exactly. Yeah. I even carried a pack of cigarettes in my car for months, just thinking that I might have the need to smoke a cigarette at some time, perhaps when I was having a couple of beers or out with some friends or something. But I pretty much end up giving it away because I never smoke again.
Brent: That's amazing. And so then there's one more interesting part of this, is that you were also an accidental vaping advocate. Tell us about that.
Jeffrey: Yeah, kind of. And the thing is that I saw that it was so easy for me to quit, even though that I have tried before a couple of times and I didn't succeed on it. I tried quitting smoking perhaps a few months before I bought my vaping device and a few years back and it didn't work out. I was not able to. I found so easy to quit through this harm reduction alternative that I got kind of speaking about it even. I started sharing on social media that I found this that it was so easy to quit with. And I start kind of the advocacy just by telling my testimony that I think that's probably how most of the advocates out there start just telling them okay, this works, let me tell the people that I know about it. So that's how I started and sometime I started sharing news that were coming out at that time. It was a time that the kind of the news explode regarding this harm reduction alternative with UK being at the forefront and with all the science and stuff. So it got really easy to start sharing information and that's how I kind of entered the space of advocacy, I think.
Brent: So you're based in Costa Rica and run the Vaping association there. Is Costa Rica Vape friendly?
Jeffrey: That's a tricky question. It is bright friendly if you count that it is legal to commercialize vaping devices and to use vaping devices here whatsoever. We do have a war when it comes to some entities trying to over regulate, over tax this healthier or safer alternative. So it is on the eyes of the Ministry of Health. They're trying to make people to stop vaping. They're actually giving misinformation out. And on top of that we have the Bloomberg funded entity that is pushing a false narrative in order to get to the impression to people to kind of think that it is as harmful as smoking cigarettes. So it's friendly, but I think we could do better.
Brent: So when you look at, you know, all of Latin America, of course, huge, it's massive. How popular is Vaping in Latin America?
Jeffrey: Within the, let's say perhaps last six years, five years perhaps, it got really popular. We have huge communities, for example on Argentina, that is close to a million people actually vaping. In Mexico that is close now to 1.5 million that is already vaping, even though both of those countries is illegal to commercialize. And so the community in Latin America have grown a bunch. It is actually pretty massive. Colombia is another country that has a lot of people that actually have switched from smoking to vaping now. So yeah, it become pretty popular. Especially, I will say that within the 25 to 44 years old I think it has been really popular.
Brent: How much of a problem is smoking in Latin America, say, versus what might be the case in North America?
Jeffrey: Well, probably a lot of people that are watching this episode know, 80% of the people that smoke and that will actually die of tobacco related illness are located on low and middle income countries. So Latin America it is part of it. So we do have a problem when it comes to smoking that it goes depending on the country from 10% to 30%, depending on the country, you will find this prevalence of the smoking.
Brent: Tell us about this commercialization issue. You've mentioned that a couple of times. So what exactly is going on in terms of the legal status? Let's just say between Mexico or Argentina, Brazil and so forth.
Jeffrey: When it comes to that in America you will find laws that actually prohibit the commercialization of the product but not the use. So it is legal to use it whatsoever. If anybody starts a business or starts selling this kind of product, you can get fine or you can even go to jail depending on the country. So it is quite a difficult thing to understand how a person can use it and how they will get it if the commercialization is forbidden. So we're spanning it is quite difficult to understand what rationalization those regulator had at the moment that they did the law. So unfortunately it is quite a conversation.
Brent: Now does that mean then let's just use Mexico as an example that if you are a consumer in Mexico you're now no longer able to find nicotine vaping products or can you still find them?
Jeffrey: You're going to find them a lot in black market. A lot. The black market in Mexico is huge. Unfortunately the President of Mexico, Manuel Obrador made a presidential decree that have been established as anticonstitutional even though he didn't care that it was against the constitution to enact this decree and make it legal to commercialize the product. So people are going to be able to find it on the black market, which is massive. There are some people are saying that actually the black market or at the moment that this decree happened, a lot of the people from the drug cartels kind of took over a little bit of the commercialization of the product because obviously there's a demand. There's around 1.5 million people that actually are wanting to consume this product that are looking for a safer alternative to smoking or just to substitute the cigarette. At this present time, obviously the demand is looking for somebody to supply it.
Brent: Mexican drug cartels getting involved in vaping distribution can't be a good thing.
Jeffrey: Not at all, not at all, Brent. It is kind of a paradox because for example, we haven't seen what the warden drugs did to Mexico and now the Mexican president is kind of putting into bigger, better business. I don't know if I can say business, maybe it's not a better business or bigger business, but it's more business with them. Right at this present time, for example, there's been news about vending machines than people that don't know who it is or don't know who is putting them or who's responsible, is vending machines in Mexico that you can actually buy the vaping devices from. And obviously you don't need an ID to buy any cigarette from a vending machine.
Brent: So are you still able to go into retail shops and buy product?
Jeffrey: You are not able to go to any retail shop. You're not able to have a retail shop and you're not able to import the product to be able to sell it in Mexico, or let's say Mexico, let's say Panama, let's say Brazil, let's say Argentina. You're not able to at this point in time to have any commercialization of the product. So that's where the black market comes in. For example, one pretty huge example of what the black market can do for this type of product, even though there isn't a different category. It's what's happening in Panama. In Panama, you can find 90% of the cigarettes that are smoked being supplied by the black market. In Costa Rica, you can find 60% of the cigarettes that are being smoked by people here supplied by the black market. So when it comes to Latin America, we do have a problem with black markets. We do have a problem with how to police this kind of stuff because the frontiers or the people actually bringing the stuff in under the table, it's pretty massive. It is quite an economy, I believe.
Brent: That's amazing. I mean, it just sounds like to me that if you want to get a vape, call your drug dealer.
Jeffrey: Pretty much you can do that. Of course, in Latin America we have a problem with the black market pretty much in any category. You can see that there's a huge economy that is pretty much derivative. We're depending on the legal importing of goods. But when it comes to vaping products and harm reduction alternatives, what we do see is that the market kind of regulates himself. Even though when the country have banned these alternatives, they regulate themselves. They're trying to bring good products or they try to take good products to the country trying to find quality products as well. For example, what is happening in Argentina that the industry itself is self regulated and they kind of look after each other. So they're really directing bulk with the consumer telling them or actually requesting advice or this product good kind of doing even they test their products by themselves to make sure that it's a quality product. Even though you see this aggressive counterpart that is the government trying to buy, blocking the entrance of these products and blocking the industry as a whole. The industry itself is looking for a way to actually make things right. And they have done it. There's a lot of stores that recently I got to meet with a few shop owners in Argentina and they self regulate. They make sure that everything is on rule, not with Argentina, but with some other countries, right? They look at the reports, they look for quality ingredients, they look for quality products. When it comes to the electric devices, the batteries, they look for genuine and original products to make sure that everything is going to be the safest possible for the end consumer.
Brent: So tell us about ARDT Iberoamerica. What is this organization of consumer organizations? What does it do?
Jeffrey: ARDT Iberoamerica it's kind of an umbrella for all consumer organizations in Latin America and Spain and Portugal. So pretty much any country that is a Spanish speaking country, so you can find there's 17 organizations so far. What we do is kind of cooperate within each other. One curious thing about Latin America is that it's so visible that what happens in one country, it takes less than a day, and it's happening in another country. For example, if you see the misinformation that has been distributed in, let's say, Costa Rica, you can see that in hours it's in Peru, and then after some hours is in Chile, and then a few hours later, you can see it in Colombia. And we're so close, at least in how the media is managing this and that it is visible. It is easier for consumer organizations to stay really close to other countries because we help each other. We put our efforts together to be able to counteract or to find this immense amount of misinformation that we're receiving from the media constantly.
Brent: Now, how do you do that? Push back? And how effective has it been?
Jeffrey: Well, we think that we have been effective. I think we have been able to correct a lot of misperceptions from different organizations, especially Bloomberg funded entities that actually kind of release bogus or misinformation deliberately, I think. And we have been able to include ourselves in many conversations. Now, for example, Mexico recently, they have a forum on the Senate, kind of the parliament as well, on another forum that includes the voices of different consumer organizations related to harm reduction products. So we're getting there that our voices are being included. Chile is one example with Ignacio and the whole community in Chile, they have been able to include their voices, include their argument into a bill that has been proposed to regulate vaping devices there. I think that is going out really well. For example, on Peru you can find Jorge and Asoba Peperu. They're including their voices on bills that are being proposed. So they're getting their arguments out to be considered by regulators. On Columbia, you can find Francisco that is fighting on a bill as well to regulate harm reduction products, and especially in Colombia, to regulate nicotine by itself, right? Not caring about the delivery method, but nicotine by itself, so they can open two or different possibilities when it comes to nicotine pouches and heated tobacco products, and not only e-cigarettes. So it's an interesting project there. Mexico is fighting like crazy, and I have to give my applause to the Mexican consumer advocates because they're given a tough fight this present in time. There's three consumer organizations there where that includes consumers and they have been firing the fighting tires, they've been fighting constantly in order to get their voices heard.
Brent: So it sounds like to me that at least in some of these countries that you just mentioned, that government may actually be listening to the consumer advocates for vaping products.
Jeffrey: I won't go that far, Brent, but at least we have managed to include our voices somehow, somewhere or the other. There have been rallies, for example, on Chile, on Colombia, on Mexico, multiple rallies because we're kind of demanding our voices to be heard, right? I think that we're definitely approaching to a moment that the science is so solid that it cannot be ignored. And as a consumer advocate, we can see how the needle is shifting a little bit from years ago. Now we're seeing more and more people jumping on the boat of harm reduction. And I think that, as Alex Wodak said, harm reduction wins at the end, always. And I think that is what is happening at this present time. We're kind of getting there. Perhaps it's going to take some time more to get to a better place, regulatory speaking, but we're definitely walking in the right direction, I think on some places and on some other places that we still have a pretty good battle to be fought, there's people that are willing to fight that battle.
Brent: And then globally, your director of Social Media for INNCO, which is the global organization of organizations of consumer advocates, it's just awesome. And it's kind of like one of those dolls where you open it up, there's another one signed, you open it up, it's a really great layering, right? To be able to do that. So with INNCO, you just came back from Portugal for the big addictions conference there and you folks made a presentation. Just quickly tell us about that conference and what this presentation was all about.
Jeffrey: We participated in Lisbon addictions. 2022. The conference is related to harm reduction on drugs, on HIV, on AIDS and hepatitis. Pretty much in every category there. We present the preliminary results from a survey and a study that we're preparing that is about harassment and intimidation to our advocates or harm reduction advocate that has been perpetuated by Bloomberg funded entities. So it is pretty interesting that the results are going to be available soon as well for the whole study, hopefully. And it was a pretty good experience. When you get to Lisbon, you see these people that are so committed to harm reduction and they're starting to incorporate harm reduction for people who smoke tobacco as well. So you did see, for example, a panel discussion from Cochrane talking about heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes. You found, for example, Carlon or Katie Nutley talking about vaping products and regulation of these products and how it can actually benefit public health. So it is really interesting to see how we're going now horizontal when it comes to harm reduction incorporating in some other fields, which I think is pretty important because we cannot be only on our echo chamber. We have to expand for more people to know about this. The science is solid. So I think there's in the eyes of a lot of people, more than ever before.
Brent: Yeah, it's definitely curious that if you talk to traditional harm reduction advocates, many of them who are smokers or are still smokers and they have the same misperceptions around vaping as the normal regular Joe out there. And it's quite interesting to see that.
Jeffrey: Everything is a process and like many other people, they are susceptible to misinformation on media and we have to be honest, brand on media you can find a bunch of junk science and misinformation regarding this product. So they're susceptible to that misinformation as well. Obviously, when you get a panel discussion with cocaine, that is kind of the standard for investigation when it comes to health practices and science, pretty much you can see that the science is solid. So it's turning a few heads already. I think that the harm reduction in spectrum will include some time or other tobacco harm reduction, even though that I don't like to call it tobacco harm reduction because I don't like to divide it between the whole harm reduction movement. I just think that it's harm reduction for people who smoke tobacco. And like any other harm reduction approach, it is based on love and empathy and I think that's what it's going to win at the end.
Brent: Jeffrey, you're also working on a documentary called #Safer. Tell us about that.
Jeffrey: As part of the KAC scholarship program, I'm working on a documentary that is called #Safer that is pretty much about safer alternatives on countries that they have banned them. For example, we had just completed shooting the episode on Argentina where we met with a lot of people that are working on the harm reduction side. For example, Fakundo Aylin and Dr. Diego Verastro. We're trying to highlight their lives, how they're fighting for harm reduction alternatives, even though that there have been prohibited and were banned in the country. So it is kind of get to have their stories out, let people know that there's actually persons behind this, right? It's not only science, it's not only movement, it's not only industry, it's actually people that are committed to helping out some others. And harm reduction, like I said before, is based on empathy and love and compassion. And those people that I had the pleasure of speaking with Elizabeth in the first episode, they're full of it, they're full of compassion, they're full of love and they're really committed to that goal of saving so many lives in their country and they're fighting a tough war every single day and they're not getting paid for it. They just win it out of empathy, out of the hope that they can save so many lives that are, you know, they're dying on every single day on Argentina, for example, in this episode.
Brent: And so that's what you're doing as a scholar then, as a part of the KAC program?
Jeffrey: Yes, that is correct. I'm part of the KAC Scholarship Enhanced scholarship program, being mentored by Jon Derricott, Chim, that I'm not going to try to pronounce his last name because I can't. So it is quite interesting. Those guys are amazing. The scholarship program is amazing for any person that has been interested in getting have an idea that they want to develop and will need some financial assistance to be able to carry that idea. I do recommend a lot getting into the program or trying to see if they can apply for the program, because it's a great program. You get a lot of mentoring, a lot of coaching, a lot of knowledge when it comes to harm reduction and the possibilities to start a career in the harm reduction site.
Brent: Now, speaking of the global harm reduction movement, the Global Forum on Nicotine will be coming up again in June of next year. We just came back from it and had some great coverage. Have you been to that to GFN? And if so, why is it an important event?
Jeffrey: It is a really important event, to be honest. I think the whole conversations are really needed, especially on the time that we are right now, we are approaching Cup Ten. So I think that probably it is the most important moment to have all the arguments solid, have the knowledge to be able to debate what is going on and to include our voices. It is really important for the whole community to get involved. The Global Forum of Nicotine is an event that you can just by entering and hearing these guys speak, because you're going to hear brilliant people there. For example, Gerry Stimson, Clive Bates. So many people that I can't even stop mentioning because Brad Rodu alone. Charles Gardner, Angeles Muntala that is part of INNCO as well. There's so much knowledge when it comes not only to science, but how to debate things. So it is really important people to get involved, to participate in the forum because they will grow on their arguments, on their bases, on how to debate what is going on. I had the opportunity to be on a panel discussion this last year with Clive Bates, with Fiona Patten, with Joseph Magero, and it was a great panel. We discussed a lot about what is happening on LMIC's low and middle income countries. It is really important to get our facts straight, to be able to have the basis that we need, the knowledge that we need in order to be able to include our argument, especially to get involved with regulators and people that are making the calls when it comes to bills and laws to be passed or not passed within our countries.
Brent: Jeffrey, is this fight winnable?
Jeffrey: We are winning. So it is winnable. Actually, we're winning. Even though it doesn't appear like that at this present time around. Let's say 72 countries have regulated harm reduction. There's 112,000,000 people using harm reduction products. And even though smoking is still the biggest threat, we're not going to make communicable disease, avoidable communicable disease. I think that we still have a chance to save a billion people in our lifetime. I do think that the knowledge has been spread. I do think that a lot of people are jumping in the baggage of harm reduction. I do think that every day that passes by, more people actually start doubting about the misinformation that they're receiving on the media. And I do think that this war could be one of the end. We just have to devote it ourselves. We just have to fight. We just have to be continue. Like I said before, this is a matter of love and empathy and compassion. And that always wins.