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Get the inside scoop on the speakers and presentations at GFN23 with Jessica Harding, program director of the Global Forum on Nicotine 2023.

Jessica Harding
Program Director, Global Forum on Nicotine


Hi, I'm Brent Stafford and welcome to another edition of RegWatch on GFN.TV.

The fight to secure access and choice to safer nicotine products takes place 24 hours a day,

seven days a week in most countries around the world.

And each year, the battle centers on one location and event, the Global Forum on Nicotine held

in Warsaw, Poland, coming up this June 21st to 24th.

Joining us today to talk about GFN 23 and what we can expect from this year's event

is Jessica Harding, Program Director at the Global Forum on Nicotine.

Jess, thanks for coming on the show.

Thanks for having me, Brent.

Well in one way or another, every conversation we tackle on RegWatch is really a conversation

about nicotine, which of course is what GFN is all about.

Why is nicotine so important to discuss?

It's because, as you know, the substance and its use remains so poorly understood.

The general public, the media, policy makers, even lots of doctors don't understand that

nicotine is not the harmful component in smoking.

This misunderstanding is one of the major obstacles to global progress on tobacco harm


As you know, and as most of GFN TV's viewers know, nicotine itself does not cause many

of the diseases, any of the diseases associated with smoking.

It does not cause cancer.

Nicotine is even on the WHO's list of essential medicines, as long as it's in the form of

medically approved nicotine replacement therapy.

Products like vapes, pouches, snus and heated tobacco deliver nicotine to people who either

cannot or who do not want to stop using it in ways that are significantly safer than


But until people get a better handle on what nicotine is and what nicotine isn't, and what

it does and doesn't do, we're going to remain at something of an impasse.

So this is the 10th year for the Global Forum on Nicotine.

Tell us about how it got started and what the event is.

GFN started in 2014 when GFN's founders, who are Gerry Stimson and Paddy Costal, they first

became aware of safer nicotine products.

At that time, they were very optimistic that the products would hasten an end to smoking.

Gerry and Paddy saw that there was a need for an event that brought everyone to the

table, i.e. consumers, public health, scientists and industry.

There needed to be a platform for discussion and debate about tobacco harm reduction, and

there wasn't one.

So in 2014, they started GFN, and it continues to be a platform for everyone involved to

bring their thoughts to the table.

It's gone from strength to strength now in its 10th year, with every year building on

the last year, and we're always innovating to keep it relevant and dynamic.

So for example, this year, for the first time, we're offering two sessions in Spanish, which

will be translated into English.

This will give the opportunity for experts who are not fluent in English to participate

in the tobacco harm reduction conversation, as well as reaching Spanish speakers around

the world.

We're also translating the streamed sessions into Russian, which will enable us to reach

people across Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

So it's becoming truly global.

So why is tobacco harm reduction important in and of itself?

It's important because it substitutes deadly combustible tobacco with safer nicotine products.

It's important because it's helping to solve the smoking problem.

In countries where safer nicotine products are accessible, for example, the UK, Japan,

Sweden, Korea, smoking rates are dropping fast.

So tobacco harm reduction is working because it's what many consumers want, unlike medically

approved products such as nicotine replacement therapies, which have very low efficacy rates.

GFN is the only conference to focus on tobacco harm reduction.

We talk about all the products with the people who use them, with the people who make them,

with the people who study them, and with the people who regulate them.

We believe that including everyone is the only way to affect positive change.

How critical has vaping been to advancing the THR cause?

Well, vaping isn't the only safer nicotine product because snus, of course, is much,

much older.

But I suppose vaping is the most visible one.

It became popular very, very quickly, and I think it has attracted the most attention.

For tobacco harm reduction, I think it cannot be just about one product.

It's about choice.

It's about lots of products, and it's about people being able to choose whichever suits

them, like I vape, and I sometimes use nicotine pouches.

Lots of us use more than one product, and it's important in tobacco harm reduction that

we can.

So, yes, vaping is probably the one that gets the most notice, but we know now there are

82 million vapers worldwide, and I think it's about 120 million users of safer nicotine


So, not all the users of safer nicotine products are vaping, quite a large proportion aren't.

And it's important that we have lots of products because vaping doesn't suit everybody.

We know that.

Well, speaking of vaping and the other safer nicotine products, the whole category can

be very polarizing.

What kind of opposition has there been and why?

I think there's opposition for different reasons.

I think in the early days, it was because the evidence to support the use of safer nicotine

products just wasn't there, and so public health preferred to take what they call a

precautionary approach, and in some ways that was understandable back then, but now we have

such a wealth of evidence that demonstrates that these products are significantly safer

than combustibles, i.e. smoking, and smoking is proven to be harmful to health, so I don't

think precautionary principles should apply anymore.

People need to be given accurate information to help inform their decision making, and

people should be supported to use alternatives that are less harmful to their health.

I think also a lot of it is about ideology and coming from people who think that abstinence

is the best thing.

The problem is that this doesn't take into account that people like to use nicotine or

even that they might need to use nicotine.

I think, too, it's a consequence of the public health war on smoking, where it was seen as

okay, unbelievably, to stigmatize people who smoke.

Thankfully that's not acceptable anymore.

It's not seen as acceptable, but the stigma persists, and sometimes that also applies

to people who vape, unfortunately.

I think also, with anything new, there's opposition, and that's what we're seeing, teething problems,

I hope.

That's why having forums such as GFN, which are open to everybody to have constructive

conversations, is key to hopefully improving understanding and tackling that opposition.

Is focusing on science, then, an important response that GFN is deploying in order to

address the polarization?

Yes, yes, certainly, because science is evidence, and our discussions at GFN are based on evidence,

and all we want is for the conversation to be rooted in science.

We want to save the polarization for ideology, not for science, so GFN is a place where science

and policy can meet, and we're really, really proud of that.

Jess, as you know so well, Drug Watch was at GFN 22 last year, and it was amazing.

Hundreds and hundreds of people from over 50 countries around the world were there.

Tell us about the people who attend GFN.

Who are they, and why did they come?

Actually, it was actually over 60 countries, and this year I wouldn't be surprised if it

wasn't even more, because there is huge interest in coming to GFN this June.

We are so busy, honestly, the conference organizers are flat out already, with two months to go.

A key part of our constituency is consumers, and we're really, really proud that consumers

often call GFN their home, because for many people who are advocating in tobacco harm

reduction, GFN is the only time they get to be in a room with someone else, with other

advocates, and people really, really value that.

I'm speaking as a consumer myself, who first visited GFN in 2017 as a consumer advocate,

and it's lovely every year meeting my friends and making new friends.

Why is the consumer part so important?

Because the consumers are the people who use the products, the consumers are the people

who want the products, and to some extent, consumers are also the people who develop

the products.

Jess, I know the answer to this question, but let me ask it.

Are consumers involved in the decision making, in regulations, in whether or not these products

are accepted around the world, or do they have little voice?

It varies.

It varies, but yes, often consumers are sidelined, and they are not always accorded the central

place that they should have.

So a lot of conversations in consumer advocacy are about how to amplify our voices and how

to direct, how to get the people who need to listen to listen to us.

And GFN is also part about that.

I wanted to bring up that, you know, the people that have come on this series, this partnership

that RegWatch has got with GFN, we always ask them why is GFN important, and almost

every single time they mention the consumer.

I think GFN is important, not just because it affords a central place to the consumer,

but it provides a forum for everybody to come together.

So it's consumers with industry, with regulators, with politicians, with anyone who's involved

in safe nicotine products, basically.

What about Big Tobacco?

Are they there?

Yeah, Big Tobacco are there too.

Consumers of safe nicotine products attend GFN because it's important that they also

get to hear from other stakeholders present and that they contribute to the discussions.

This includes traditional tobacco companies that are now active in producing safe nicotine


It also includes lots of independent companies.

And like I said before, we want all the stakeholders present because we feel that this is the key

to moving tobacco harm reduction forward.

And that includes Big Tobacco.

What about the speakers and the topics over the years?

And you know, let's start talking about the theme for this year.

We have a lot of speakers, and I think it's safe to say that we've heard from everyone

who is someone in the THR debate over the years, and we've had nine previous conferences,

so that's a lot of people to choose from.

We always try to respond to the current challenges and opportunities in tobacco harm reduction

with our program.

Something we're really proud of is that On Lick, who was the inventor of the modern e-cigarette,

spoke at one of the earliest GFN events and continues as a patron of GFN.

We always mix old and new, so there are familiar faces at GFN every time alongside exciting

new speakers, which makes for a really dynamic program.

And this year we've got some really, really interesting new speakers.

And what I always love so much about the GFN events is the great themes and taglines.

In the past, when we've had Patti on RegWatch, we've kind of gone through them.

This year, the theme is tobacco harm reduction the next decade.

What can you tell us about that?

Well, we're going to be reflecting on the last 10 years and using this as a way of projecting

forward to the next 10 years and thinking about what can the last 10 years teach us?

Where are we now?

Where do we need to be?

It's a really good opportunity to use our experiences for positive change in the future.

And we will be celebrating 10 years of coming together, so it's going to be quite the party.

But yeah, it feels like tobacco harm reduction has come of age, really, and we're marking

that moment in a way.

It feels like it's entering into a different phase, it's maturing.

So it's going to be interesting to explore that.

Is there still time for people to register for the event?

Oh, yes, absolutely, yes.

People can either register to come to Warsaw, or they can register online for free.

Online registrations, they'll always be open.

Obviously, in-person registrations will depend on capacity.

We have sold out before, and there is a lot of interest this year, so book early to avoid


Well, if you can afford it, I highly recommend going to the event in Warsaw in person.

It's a beautiful city, obviously, and what a great time of the year in June.

And of course, having the opportunity to physically shake hands and meet and talk with people

is so important.

But as you said, there is online, and so GFN does a great job of broadcasting, actually,

from the event.

Can you tell us a bit about that?

We'll be streaming every day.

We won't be streaming every session, but we will be streaming most sessions.

And as I mentioned, it's free to register to watch those sessions.

If you're joining us online, you can participate.

There's a chat that you can participate in, and you can also put questions to go forward

to the hosts and the panelists in the actual room.

And we always make sure that we ask a lot of online audience questions.

And if you're streaming, you'll be able to access the simultaneous translation into Russian

and Spanish.

So, tell us about the agenda for the upcoming GFN 23.

What's scheduled to happen?

Well, it's quite fun-packed, and it's intense.

This year, GFN is for four days.

At the beginning, the first two days will be mostly workshops, which are based on proposals

which were submitted by the audience.

We've got quite a nice range.

In fact, it's going to be quite difficult to choose which one to go to at any given

time, and people have already been commenting about that.

We have, so just to give you an idea of a few of them, we have three on regulation.

We have two conducted in Spanish.

We have workshops on reducing environmental impacts, which is quite a hot topic at the

moment, on medicinal licensing of vaping products.

How do we get a medicinal license?

Do we even want one?

On barriers to quitting, and on tobacco industry transformation and LMICs.

Why does it not seem to be reaching LMICs, basically?

And on Wednesday evening, Clive Bates is going to host a session, which is called the Big

THR Conversation.

That's going to be quite unusual, in that it's going to be based on oral history, and

the oral history will be supplied by the audience.

It's going to be a look back at some of the key moments in tobacco harm reduction.

And we're really excited about that, because very little of our tobacco harm reduction

history has been recorded at all, there's stuff that just is not written down.

So it's a really exciting opportunity to change that, and to make sure it gets recorded.

Then on Thursday evening, we have the Michael Russell Award and the Michael Russell Oration,

which will be given by Roberto Sussman.

He's going to be giving a critical evaluation of tobacco and nicotine science, which is

going to be a really, really good start to the main programme.

Then after that, we have the conference party in the evening on Thursday, which is really

good fun, and that is free to everyone who's registered for the in-person event in Walsall.

Then Friday and Saturday sees the regular GFM programming, which for that we have two

keynotes, three plenary discussions, and four parallel panel discussions.

What panel or keynote presentation has you the most excited?

Well, both keynotes are exciting.

Sarah Cooney is going to be telling us about the politics of scientific publishing, which

has a huge effect on tobacco harm reduction.

And Paul Newhouse is going to be talking about the potential benefit, telling us about the

role of nicotinic systems in brain disorders.

And I haven't discovered anyone who can say nicotinic yet.

And the panels are going to continue the science focus with, most of them are about science.

We've got one on 10 years of science, what have we learned, and another one on science

regulation and morality.

And just I should say that for the panel discussions, no presentations get shown during the actual


That's devoted to discussion and involves a lot of audience questions.

So instead, the panelists submit presentations in advance, which are made available to the

audience to watch ahead of the session.

So people should keep an eye out for those.

So that's interesting.

So then you can look forward to real time receiving and engaging in discussion with

the presenter because the actual presentation was made available beforehand.

Exactly, exactly.

I mean, sessions often start with presenters being asked to recap quickly the main points

in their presentations.

I think it's really useful, though, that people can watch them in advance and then also watch

them again afterwards.

It makes for a lot more discussion and I think it gets away from death by PowerPoint, which

I think we all probably experienced.

And why don't you say a quick word about the GFN-5s.

The deadline for submission has just passed, but yet people can go watch them on at GFN.TV.

Yeah, GFN-5s, they're really exciting and they're our solution to posters, well, they're

our modern version of posters.

They're basically short videos of up to five minutes on the topic of tobacco home reduction

and anyone can submit a GFN-5.

All they need to do is register for the conference, which is free, you can register just to watch

it online.

If accepted, your GFN-5 is put on the website and on past conference websites.

I think we've got, when did we start doing it?

We've got three years worth now, which is really exciting, which you can look up.

And we always get a lovely, a lovely diverse array, they're very interesting.

And now is a good time to remind viewers that there is still time to register for the annual

Global Forum on Nicotine Conference on Safer Nicotine Products and Tobacco Harm Reduction.

GFN is coming up this June, from June 21st to the 24th.

Go to to learn more and to sign up.

Jess, final question for you.

What has you the most excited about GFN23?

Everything about it, really, especially seeing people that I haven't seen for a year.

I'm meeting new people, I'm really excited about the program, I think it's one of the

best yet, so it's going to be wonderful to see how that works.

Good people, good presentations, good food, good drinks.

Yeah, what's not to like?

See you in Warsaw.