Canadian tobacco harm reduction advocate and nicotine vape retailer takes a stand against anti-vaping critics at home while preparing to take on the WHO at the upcoming FCTC COP10, the Conference of the Parties in Panama, this November.
Vaping Activist, Canada
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Brent Stafford: Hi everybody, I'm Brent Stafford and welcome to another edition of Reg Watch on GFN.TV. It's a catch-22 for many vaping activists who also make a living from the industry they so passionately defend. As retailers, they are considered to be part of the tobacco industry. and therefore they are shut out of the conversation regarding the regulation of nicotine vaping products. And as consumers and consumer advocates, they are also dismissed because of their connections to the vaping industry, leaving no room for their voice in this critical debate. Joining us today to discuss this dilemma is Maria Papaioannoy-Duic, a prominent vaping activist from Ontario, Canada. Maria, thanks so much for coming back on the show.
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: Oh Brent, it's been way too long.
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Brent Stafford: I missed you. It has been a while. Maria, before we dive into a deep conversation here, please take a moment and tell our viewers a bit about who you are and your passion for vaping.
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: I think I started vaping in 2010-2011. I was a really early adopter. In 2013 we opened up a shop and in 2014 vaping regulations started to happen in the city of Toronto and I felt blindsided and I remember going to I guess, the committee hearing and seeing a councillor ask a vape shop owner what their profit margin was. And I was mortified at that time. And I thought, why are you not asking how many people have quit smoking? Why are you not asking about the health of Torontonians? Why are you grilling him on numbers?
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Brent Stafford: You've had a big impact on vaping advocacy in Canada, from working with the regulator, that's Health Canada, to organizing numerous protests and campaigns. What's been the most memorable thing for you?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: I think it was the first march we did in Ontario. I wanted to create the image, and I guess it's because of my background in radio and television, but I wanted to create the image for the media. I knew that these protests, I believed an organized protest based on the media, not based on the politicians. and I remember standing on this stage and the music, you know, we had music and a stage and microphones, and I just stood in the middle of that stage and I watched hundreds of people fill up Queen's Park and I started crying because I couldn't believe that many people trusted me to organize something to fight to keep access for the one product that was keeping them in their opinion. And that's the only opinion that matters. No one else's opinion matters if you vape. that is keeping them safer than the alternative, which is smoking. And to me, and I've done a lot, like, I mean, I chased down the prime minister of Canada at airports randomly. I drove around in a 34-foot RV. But that moment stays with me all the time because it's so precious. When you're advocating and there's people that don't like the way I do things. But I do them with a heart and I do things based on the information that I know, the conversations that I have, because I am two things I am persistent and patient. And my second most incredible thing that happened was on January 3rd in 2019, I emailed Health Canada and asked them for a meeting. And I told them I was available between January 4th and December 31st of 2019. Let them pick a date. And they picked a date. And I was the first person outside of an organization to be invited to Ottawa to go to their building, sit in a room with every single person and do that. And that's because I was just patient. I said, give it a year. You can't say no to someone if they're giving you a year. So to me, the more I know, the more questions that I ask, the more persistent I am. I just think someone believes that vaping has changed their life and I want that belief and that is their belief. It's my belief. I mean, we have a joint belief, but I'm not there to take that away from them. I'm there to keep it going.
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Brent Stafford: What about flavor bans, Maria? We've heard that Quebec now has a flavor ban. I mean, are flavors available in Canada?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: Flavors on a federal level are available in Canada. However, provincially provinces are deciding to crack down. And that's where the biggest threat is. It's on a provincial level where the government of Canada doesn't have any control because of the way our political system and regulatory system is set up, where lower levels of government have a lot more, have the ability to increase restrictions, but not decrease restrictions. So on the federal level, right up top, 18 years old, you can buy vaping products, you can get any flavor you want, you're capped at 20 mg. When you go into the provinces, and these are the provinces that have NGO influence, so a lot of work was done in Quebec, and to understand Quebec, On the government's payroll is actually an NGO individual, and this individual, Flory, is her name. She gets a pension when she's done from the Quebec government, but she's the one that influenced these regulations. They have millions of dollars, and she works for the government, so she also has millions. She has access to lobby for what she wants, even though she's being paid by the government. That flavor ban went through without any real concern for anybody there in that province. And that also set off a domino effect because they implemented and took the government of Canada's offer to match the tax. Now we're seeing regulations going forward, how they will implement a provincial tax. And what that will do, you think of this tax because it's an excise tax, you can't shop across borders.
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Brent Stafford: Maria, in your opinion, who are the enemies to vaping in Canada?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: I personally believe and I've been witness to the biggest enemies of vaping in Canada are the NGOs. They're the same people who are fighting to save the cancer, save cancer, to save our lungs, have rely on huge funding from government, rely on huge funding from people like me and you. the Cancer Society, the Lung Association, we have Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada. These are all people that come from an old school of tobacco control. They were trained very, very well. I've had the privilege of speaking to a lot of people who have worked with her lack of a better word, these dinosaurs of tobacco control that have yet to be extinct. And their fear of anything to do with something new is so hard for them to break because you're looking at decades upon decades of indoctrinating, not only themselves being indoctrinated, but passing on and systemically passing on that indoctrination that anything to do with tobacco, that leaf, is evil. So sadly, they are the biggest enemies, and I wouldn't say of vaping, they're the biggest enemy of people who smoke in this country because their attitude hasn't changed. Their enemy, they still see their enemy in the same light. They're still living in the 80s and the 70s, but the world has moved on.
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Brent Stafford: Why do you think you're a target?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: Because I'm very clear that I own a shop and I'm very clear that I don't think that vaping and tobacco are the exact same thing. I'm very adamant to say that when it comes to vaping, it's an alternative, it's a difference to smoking. And I'm very clear to fight 5.1, I call people out. I mean, I'll never forget when Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada blocked me on Twitter very early on I actually called them and asked them why. And that's when I first heard about 5.3.
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Brent Stafford: Maria, Canada played a key role in the development of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the FCTC, which is one of the most widely embraced international treaties in United Nations history. 181 countries have signed on. The goal of the treaty is to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco. Under the framework is Article 5.3, which is intended to protect public health policy from the influence of the tobacco industry. It reads: "In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry, in accordance with national law". And underpinning this Article 5.3 is a guiding principle which states: "There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry's interests and public health policy interests". Maria, what do you make of this?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: Stay with that out the NGOs any chance you can get. You get kicked out of anything. And the first sentence is 5.3, 5.3, FCTC. I have never, like, and I email Health Canada all the time. I don't like something, I email them. I think that one of the NGOs is bullying me, I email Health, like, I mean, obviously, I don't, like, if they tell me I'm stupid, I'm not gonna email Health Canada. But if I find them that they are misusing, misrepresenting, I will email Health Canada. I have asked for meetings with Health Canada throughout the course of the last seven years. No one has ever at Health Canada brought up 5.3 and vaping.
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Brent Stafford: But you get it from the NGOs?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: Yeah, like Andrew Pipe, that's his name. Like Andrew Pipe with his Ottawa model. Nope, you own a vape shop, 5.3. I'm like, dude, come on. They're too powerful, in my opinion. They've ingrained themselves in making sure they protect the world. So you have to hold yourself accountable as an organization. You are literally discluding me as a vape shop owner because I help people who quit smoking in a way that your counterparts, pharma, who is welcomed at the table, has never been able to do it. Me and every single vape shop owner in this country have done more to help people quit smoking, have created a community, have empowered individuals. And let's take it further, vape shop owners across the world, we empower people when they walk into our shops, we care about them, we are vested, not financially, but joyfully, You know, there's something beautiful when you see someone that comes in and tells you they feel better. And no pharmacist will ever be able to do this. No billion dollar pharma, you know, head honcho will have that experience. And no tobacco company will have that experience. Is tobacco in this industry? Absolutely. What is their role? They know their role. They're gonna introduce because they're right there next to the cigarettes. We should be encouraging people to switch to vaping from cigarettes. And if anybody thinks that the tobacco industry is gonna make just as much money off of vaping, that's ridiculous. But they know they have to remove the product. Like they have no choice. I mean, literally, you know, we're writing shame messages on cigarettes in this country. So we can appease these public health NGO gods who know better. Robert Cunningham came up with this idea and said, we need to put messages on the cigarettes. Dude, how archaic are you and how far up your butt is your head, if you do not realize that every single Canadian already knows that smoking is bad for them? And this past year, you will have noticed that Health Canada, and not now the new Minister of Addictions, she hasn't really come out with anything, but Carolyn Bennett changed her language. She referred to smokers. They're no longer using the term smokers. People who smoke are not a verb. They're not a definition of their addiction. And that change happened at the same time of announcing the messages of shame on the cigarette sticks. So I know there's a little bit of hypocrisy, a little bit of balance, but you know sometimes you just have to, in my opinion, placate the whiny squeaky wheels. But if there's one thing I've learned from these NGOs is that they're going to keep coming after and after and after and they're not going to stop. And the only way that they will stop is if I stop. and I just have to be strong enough to speak up and not be fearful.
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Brent Stafford: Maria, as you know, the FCTC holds what is called the Conference of the Parties and the COP10 Conference, which is the Conference of the Parties, is coming up next month in Panama. If you had an opportunity to send a message to the delegates there, what would it be?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: Oh, my goodness. First of all, I'm going to Panama. I'm really happy. I'm so excited. I get to protest the WHO, not the ban, but the World Health Organization. So personally, my message, and it's been consistent, one, who are the delegates going from Canada? I mean, I get it. I don't need to know who from Health Canada is going, but I want to know, is this Les Hagen guy out of the prairies going down there and what is he going to add to this? Who is going as a representative, as a consumer? Are end users going to be part of that? Because let's go back to 1987. There was a document, I call it the Ottawa model but it's called something else, where it's about health promotion and when we've created a life-changing device because of technology and because it's no longer 1980-something, we are in the 2000s, we've created something. The people who use this device should be part of this conversation. I want to know who is going. Is Rob Cunningham going on My Dime as a Canadian? Is Les going? Is Andrew Pipe going? Again, all NGOs, all tobacco control, where is the balance? My expectation is that Health Canada should bring to COP what Health Canada has in Canada right now, if that makes any sense. That should be the representation, ballots, continued conversation. That is who Health Canada should bring there and Canada should stand up. And I emailed Health Canada asking them to put forth a motion to include consumers. I mean, just in case someone's listening, again, I don't have a back phone to Health Canada. I just email them like everybody else. And I just ask, this is what I would love for you to do. Because it's important to me.
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Brent Stafford: What are the plans for your time in Panama?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: No one sent me the whole schedule, but I do believe that we will be outside of the conference area and it's in it's like really far away, like from the city it's like off the beaten path. and going out there and protesting. And I do know that there's gonna be conversations and live streams happening. I'm hoping to be able to live stream when I'm down there. I do know that there'll be presentations. I think I'm speaking at one of these things that's happening there. So lots going on. I mean, my dream is to bump into Rob Cunningham or Les Hagen and go have coffee with the Canada's crew.
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Brent Stafford: How important is it for consumers to be heard in Panama this November?
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Maria Papaioannoy-Duic: Consumers are not going to be heard in Panama this November. That's why it's so important for them to be heard. They are being cut out of the conversation. That's not right. If you are a World Health Organization and not talking about the people who are affected by the decisions that you make and you do not add a higher value. I mean it's a value but technically a higher value to their lived experience just like we do with anything else in this world. We have lived experience on the environment when we make changes. We have lived experience when it comes to people who use drugs. But when it comes to people who smoke, we have continued that systemic shame. It is the only addiction that we continue. And I hope in my lifetime we stop it, shame people, and what the NGOs have done nationwide, I mean worldwide, is taken that shame from tobacco smoke and brought it over to vaping. And the problem is, and where I think that tobacco control is not understanding, is that people who don't smoke anymore and vape feel empowered because of the vape shop owners that they visit every day.