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With an estimated 7 million smokers out of a population of 19 million, the Eastern European country of Romania has a lot of work to do to help its citizens quit the deadly habit. Instead, Romania plans to enact a new excise tax that would double the cost of safer nicotine products, like vaping.

Alex Gogoana
President, ACPAN
Consumer Assoc. of Nicotine Products, Romania


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Brent Stafford: Hi, I'm Brent Stafford and welcome to another edition of RegWatch on GFN.TV. Consumers of nicotine vaping products know how to take a beating. As most are former smokers, they are all too familiar with tobacco control measures that punish and demean their way into compliance and submission. For vapers, the brutal irony is that they did comply and quit smoking. But to the horror of tobacco control, they found new and safer ways to get their nicotine hit. Joining us today to provide an Eastern European perspective on public health's unrelenting war on vaping is Alex Gogoana, president of the Consumer Association of Nicotine Products from Romania. Alex, thanks for joining us today on RegWatch.

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Alex Gogoana: Hello Brent, thanks for having me.

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Brent Stafford: It's our pleasure. Let me ask you first off, how prominent are tobacco control efforts in Romania?

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Alex Gogoana: The tobacco control efforts in Romania, the measures I think you are asking about them, literally there is nothing.

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Brent Stafford: Really?

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, the government, they don't have any active programs or something similar.

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Brent Stafford: So public health in Romania isn't in the media and in the schools?

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Alex Gogoana: Not really. It should be, but in the reality, there is nothing happening.

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Brent Stafford: So then tell us, how oppressive are vaping regulations in Romania?

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Alex Gogoana: They are pretty much oppressive. We cannot vape indoors, and we also have tax for the nicotine. From this year, we have tax on every liquid, with nicotine or without nicotine.

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Brent Stafford: And then what about the commercial market? Are you able to buy nicotine vapes legally in a store?

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Alex Gogoana: Yes, they are available. TPD liquids and disposables, they are available. There is no problem.

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Brent Stafford: So what about smoking? Is it prevalent in Romania or was it?

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Alex Gogoana: A lot of people are smoking in Romania. From my estimation, we have almost 7 million of smokers. We have 19 million of Romanians and 7 million are smokers.

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Brent Stafford: Alex, please tell us a little bit about your story. How did you become a vapor and for how long have you been vaping?

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Alex Gogoana: Thanks for asking. So I switched to vaping in 2009. And from 2011, I didn't smoke at all. So I only vape using liquid with nicotine. I was a smoker of two or maybe even three packs of cigarettes per day. I tried... I tried. In that period, the vapes weren't so good. Of course, but I managed to quit this habit. So when exactly did vaping become popular? In around 2010 in Romania, we had some vape stores. So I think 2010 or 2011, something like this.

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Brent Stafford: Did a strong community develop around vaping?

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Alex Gogoana: Yes, actually the vaping community was before the vape shops in Romania, because the Romanians, they are used to buy from outside the country, a lot of products. So a lot of people already had the vapes. And after that, the shops, they started to selling in Romania.

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Brent Stafford: Alex, please tell us about the Consumer Association of Nicotine Products from Romania, ACPAN. Why did you start it and what does it do?

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Alex Gogoana: Basically, I started legally the association four years ago. But I do the vaping advocacy through my YouTube channel for almost 10 years. I started because we needed an organization to fight for the consumers, for the vapers, actually for the consumers, in order to get in contact with the state authority or the government. In your experience, do consumers have a voice? They might have, because Romania is a small country, and I think that every vote counts, even now. So basically, this is our main weapon to fight for this. Our campaigns are made on sending emails to the authorities by the individuals, because I think that if they receive 300 or maybe more, 500, 1000 emails, they will see that we are a big association and our votes will count.

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Brent Stafford: And do you work with or coordinate efforts with other consumer and vaping advocacy groups in Europe?

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Alex Gogoana: We have a very good partnership with ETHRA. They are our main reliable partners. And the NNA from Ireland.

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Brent Stafford: The New Nicotine Alliance.

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, New Nicotine Alliance.

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Brent Stafford: When you look at the European Union, they've got the tobacco products directive. Is that the source of much woe for vapors in Europe?

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, in 2015, if I remember good, when they entered the TPD also here in Romania, we had a little bit of struggle with the small bottles because this is not a good quantity for vapers, but we can live with it. There is no problem for us.

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Brent Stafford: Just so everybody saw that, that is a 10-milliliter bottle. That's the largest bottle.

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, this is a 10-milliliter bottle, and this is a 60-milliliter bottle.

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Brent Stafford: Yeah, that's the size of test bottles that they would hand out for free in Canada and the U.S., and that's the largest size that you can buy there. I think that's outrageous, don't you?

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Alex Gogoana: Yes, of course, before 2014-2015, we had these kind of samples, even bigger samples.

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Brent Stafford: Well, so that even on its own, before you start talking about taxes and so forth, that had to, or did it, cause an increase in costs just because the bottles are so small and you have to buy more.

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Alex Gogoana: Yes, of course. The consumers, they need to buy a lot of bottles. I mean, let's be honest, a bottle like this will keep, I don't know, maybe two days or three days maximum. I don't know. They need to, when they stack the liquid for one month, they need to buy a large amount of bottles. Of course, there is a problem with the recycling of these bottles. Of course, a lot of small bottles. I don't know what's happening with them. But of course, the cost is higher because also they need to be in a specific package with a specific label on it. And of course, the cost was higher.

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Brent Stafford: So that's the max size for e-liquid across all of Europe, correct?

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Alex Gogoana: Yes, with nicotine, yeah.

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Brent Stafford: Yeah, and then there's also the nicotine cap, too. Explain that.

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, so basically the maximum amount of nicotine in the whole Europe is 20 milligrams. Of course, the manufacturers, they tried to, in order to obey this law, not to exceed 20 milligrams, they kept at 18. So most of the liquids from Europe are maximum 18 milligrams of nicotine.

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Brent Stafford: Now, in Romania, correct me if I'm wrong, but the vast majority of vapers are vaping OG, the original juice. So that's the original nicotine, not the salt-based, correct? Yes.

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Alex Gogoana: Based on my notes, around 95% of vapers, they vape free base, original nicotine base.

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Brent Stafford: OG. Well, I have to say that, in Canada, we have the TPD to thank for the 20 milligrams per milliliter cap because that's what Canada implemented in 2021. And boy, that's a big deal for me because I'm a 48 to 50 salt. And when that went into place, it immediately, government mandated cut my amount of nicotine in half. And I was a bit sore about that.

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, I know for a heavy smoker, even 20 milligrams of nicotine, even on a modern vape device, maybe it's not enough.

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Brent Stafford: You know, it's funny, but Dr. John Britton, formerly the head chair of the Tobacco Committee at the Royal College of Physicians UK, he's made the point for many years now that the nicotine has to be strong enough. It has to reach your brain fast enough in order for it to be a successful tool to quit smoking. And so if you handicap it, like that 20 milligrams per milliliter does, it can frustrate a lot of people from switching from smoking to vaping.

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Alex Gogoana: We have big problems because of this. Because of this, we need to use high-power devices. We need to use rebuildable tanks that have better delivery of nicotine. That's why.

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Brent Stafford: That's an endless frustration. What about other safer nicotine products in Romania and in Europe in general? Is there a warm embrace for oral nicotine and so forth?

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Alex Gogoana: In Romania, the heat not burn devices are very popular. And also from this year or maybe from last year, I don't know, the nicotine pouches started to appear on the market.

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Brent Stafford: What are the most popular flavors for e-liquid in Romania?

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Alex Gogoana: By far, I think the tobacco flavor, maybe a sweet tobacco flavor is popular, but very next there are fruity flavors or menthol, ice, something like this.

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Brent Stafford: You know, I think many of our viewers would find it surprising that tobacco flavors top the list.

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, I think because a lot of people tried to replace the smoking with vaping, and they tried first tobacco flavors, and they enjoyed, of course, it works for them, and they are staying on that.

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Brent Stafford: So what about flavor bans? Has that been threatened in Romania and what about in the rest of the EU?

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Alex Gogoana: First of all in Romania, we don't have a flavor ban on vaping but there is a sort of flavor ban let's say like this on the heat not burn cartridge. They are not allowed to sell the menthol cartridge for the heat not burn devices and fruity if they had. I don't know. I'm not sure.

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Brent Stafford: Tell us, in Romania, are consumers able to purchase fully finished e-liquid containing both flavors of nicotine with PG and VG?

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, we are able, but I'm not sure how long we are able to buy this because the government, they put a new tax from this year, basically they extend the excise tax on every kind of liquid, even component, even anything. So for the moment, yes, it's available, but I'm not sure how long will stay.

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Brent Stafford: So this excise tax, this is a TPD based tax. Is that correct?

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Alex Gogoana: They copied the amount of of the tax basically is the same tax. It's an excise tax.

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Brent Stafford: And it's charged to the manufacturer and then passed on to the consumer.

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Alex Gogoana: Yeah, it's just the manufacturer or the importer. If the liquid is imported, they need to pay the tax. And after that, the consumer will pay the tax. So how onerous is this tax? I did some calculation. So the tax, it's zero, three Canadian dollars per milliliters. So for a small bottle, the tax is three Canadian dollars. Wow. Yeah, for a small bottle. For a big bottle, the tax can be $100. This is unbelievable. This might be the end of ready-made liquid in our country.

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Brent Stafford: So on a 10-milliliter bottle of e-juice... $3 Canadian would be applied to that in tax. What would the cost be of that 10 ml bottle in Canadian be before the tax?

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Alex Gogoana: Less than $2.

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Brent Stafford: Less than $2. So in other words, this doubles the cost of the product.

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Alex Gogoana: Yes, the tax in Romania is more than the liquid cost.

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Brent Stafford: So what kind of impact is that going to have then on existing vapers and those smokers who may have considered vaping?

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Alex Gogoana: For the existing vapers, they will try to buy from the grey market. This is sure. This has happened everywhere. It's a known fact. For the new consumers it will be a problem because they will not be able to buy the liquid. They will not be able to buy safer products because the safer product will be more expensive than the cigarette.

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Brent Stafford: That's incredible. Does the government not understand that they're going to be dissuading a bunch of people from making the switch and harming public health of those that have already quit smoking through vaping?

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Alex Gogoana: No, not really. They are not. They only want to collect the tax. This is their own thing.

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Brent Stafford: Right, but because the tax is so high, it's doubling the cost. Aren't they aware that they're not going to make any money on the tax because people are going to switch to the black market?

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Alex Gogoana: I tried to explain, I went at the tax ministry, I sent a lot of letters to them, but I didn't manage to get to speak with someone exactly to advise him about this. Of course, they have advisors and all of that, but I think this industry, this vape market, After the new tax, we'll die.

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Brent Stafford: We'll have a lot of struggle with this. Knowing what you know about Romania and the rest of Europe, would you say that public health is waging a war on vaping?

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Alex Gogoana: In Romania, of course, there are some voices from the health industry or health ministry where they are against vaping, but we don't have any big campaign to help us or to make us problems. Like I can give an example from a United Kingdom, but the health ministry said that the vaping is good and it's a good way to replace smoking. So they started to vape. In Romania, they don't like something like this, but also they didn't say that it's bad and quit this habit.

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Brent Stafford: What about groups like Mike Bloomberg and all of his minions spending millions of dollars. It is there any effect in Romania from that group?

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Alex Gogoana: We have one, they aren't an association i don't know what they are, there is an initiative or something like this. It's called the 2035 without smoking or without tobacco, i'm not sure. They control or manipulate the media, especially the social media and second hand or third hand publication, the cheapest ones. And when it's a global media coverage or something against vaping or something like this, they will also put. But here in Romania, the people aren't so, they are pretty aware and try to filter the information. Basically, we as Eastern Europeans, especially, we don't believe really fast something from the internet. Even if it looks very good to be true.

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Brent Stafford: And I want to ask you, did all of the turmoil and misinformation coming out of the United States with the so-called vaping related lung illness and the moral panic over teen vaping, did that have any impact in Romania?

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Alex Gogoana: Yes, we had something. We had an outbreak, but in, I don't know, one month or two months, it finished by itself. Actually, here in Romania, we have in the popular culture, we think if someone sees you with a vape, they will say that you will have a disease called water in lungs. So this is our thing in Romania. This is our problem with people that are thinking that they are doing water in the lungs from vaping.

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Brent Stafford: Alex, I know you are a big supporter of the Global Forum on Nicotine and its annual conference on safer nicotine products and tobacco harm reduction. I believe you've been to GFN each year over the past several years. GFN 24 is coming up again this June 13 to 15 in Warsaw, Poland. Let me ask you, why is an event like GFN important and will you be going again this year?

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Alex Gogoana: GFN is great for me, I took a lot of energy from GFN, a lot of energy from the people who i meet there from the the fellow advocates I find this way with the energy from the GFN, I have another year to fight and to do things for advocacy and for harm reduction.