Broadening your vape advocacy circle

January 17, 2020

Erika Giraud photo from Unsplash

There are a lot of despondent people in vape advocacy circles these days, and for good reason. Between federal and provincial (or state) governments, the legislation and proposed regulations are coming fast and furious. Much of mainstream media is yattering on and on about the imagined dangers of nicotine vaping, ignoring the very real (and known) dangers associated with combustible tobacco. Vapers are making long lists of compromises and restrictions they would personally be able to abide in the meantime government officials are tacking on additional measures and the anti- groups are responding that nothing will be enough until vaping is wiped out completely. On top of all this, it can feel like we’re seeing the same group of people on the front lines day after day. 

Many on the front line are feeling burnt out and discouraged. Where is everybody else? What about the vapers and vape shop owners and employees who haven’t taken up the fight yet, who we don’t see by our side though it’s their fight as much as ours? It’s helpful to remember that in any movement, there are passionate advocates who are well suited and drawn to front line work. It’s that way with anything: the fight against poverty, the fight for equal pay, the fight for access to medical care, for school funding and so on. 

It doesn’t mean that other people “don’t care” or are apathetic, sometimes it just means that they are not a front line person. At least not for this cause. And that’s okay. I think that sometimes, because front line workers are willing to put so much of themselves out there, they can get angry or despondent that others don’t seem to feel as passionately as they do or don’t seem to realize the stakes. And that anger coupled with exhaustion can lead to making severe judgments about the people who aren’t with them in the battle. Having been involved in numerous movements in my lifetime, I can tell you that this isn’t limited to the vape community. 

We’re never going to have whole buy-in or agreement by any affected group during a fight (by that time it usually means the fight has either been won or lost) but there are some practical things that we can do to widen our circle. One is to simply show up in new places. If you hit Twitter or Facebook first thing in the morning to get and spread the news, try picking up a phone instead. Call some people. 

As noted in our last article, the government of British Columbia has released an Intentions Paper which, coupled with an exorbitant excise tax, would effectively cripple the vaping industry. They released the paper quietly before Christmas and have kept the comment period short (January 24th 2020). There is limited time to spread the word and encourage community feedback. So Shane has hit the phone lines, calling B.C. shops every day to make sure they know of the paper and deadline. 

Some shops have heard of the paper and have already responded, in addition to spreading the word with their customers, while others were shocked. They knew about the tax and B.C. government’s antipathy to the industry but didn’t know that there was more. And this was intentional on the government’s part: they knew that releasing the paper when they did and not going public with a loud announcement that many would simply never hear about it. They further understood what many of us fail to: that people (just generally, not limited to the vaping community) are busy and overwhelmed and have a lot on the go and aren’t scouring government sites or social media to see if there is something that they need to do. But these same people, for the most part, are happy to have someone reach out and let them know what’s happening. They’re glad to have the information and to feel included and they’re anxious to have their voices heard. A phone call is often way more effective in reaching a new audience than social media- especially for those of us who aren’t followed by millions of people.

Another useful thing to bear in mind is that people have a lot going on. Before we get too angry at so and so from this shop or that one not being involved, or about people who vape who haven’t taken up the fight as wholeheartedly as we’d like, it’s helpful to remember that people have things going on that we may not know about: chronic or acute illnesses, difficulty with a loved one, financial burdens, a full volunteer schedule in another area, multiple jobs- any number of things that they may or may not choose to share publicly. Some people freeze up in response to extreme stress. And yes, some people don’t care quite as much about some things as they do about others- even if the ‘some thing’ is of utmost importance to us. And that’s all right. It has to be. Chances are there are some very serious, very critical things happening that you or I aren’t putting our energy into right now either. That doesn’t make us bad people. 

But it may help to ask if we aren’t further restricting our own circle by limiting the type of ‘help’ that we’ll accept. That list of “compromises” mentioned at the start of the article: do they involve “giving up” things that other people might value? Are we pushing an agenda that excludes people and then complaining about the lack of uptake? Are we, for instance, suggesting that everyone should be “for” nicotine limits or “against” certain companies or products? Well, it’s kind of an expected outcome that people who use or sell those products might not be on board with our campaign. Complaining that they won’t a) switch to our preferred products and then b) enthusiastically campaign alongside us is a bit rich. 

The most successful movements build on commonalities not divisiveness. Maybe you do have an opinion on which products or companies or nicotine levels or points of sale are “the best” and chances are they’re those that “worked for you.” But bear in mind that those opinions can sound an awful lot like the stories from ex-smokers who quit cold turkey “through will power”, or quit with patches or nicotine gum or a spiritual experience. That’s great- it’s your story and your opinion, but that doesn’t make it a one-size fits all solution for everybody. It’s great that you had options, and were able to choose the best solution for you. Our better bet is to not exclude our natural allies and then wonder where they are at. “But most of the people I know agree with me.” Yes, but we’re talking about broadening your advocacy circle, not about the people who already agree with you. 

We have a lot of natural allies in harm reduction and drug policy circles. Many of them have years of experience on us, in dealing with government officials, campaigning with the public, legal fights and so on. They may not vape themselves but they know the value of harm reduction, have dedicated their lives to it. But when we limit the argument to certain products or  companies, when we exclude certain groups of people as a ‘necessary sacrifice’, we limit our ability to cooperate with these groups who value the principles of harm reduction and of personal autonomy. 

We can broaden our circle by prioritizing the principles of what we are fighting for over the details. If we’re in this to “save lives” then we should aim to save lives- as many as we can. Of the people who we agree with and the ones that we don’t. I read an article in Filter the other day about drug policy reformists and climate change activists coming together to partner on common issues. It is possible to greatly expand our advocacy network if we stick to principles over details. 

And finally, we can ask ourselves if this is a group we’d want to join if we weren’t already members? Is there a way to make it more attractive to people who might still be on the sidelines? If our main rallying call is outrage, that’s not necessarily going to draw a wider crowd. We have every reason to be indignant and angry. The media is outright lying about nicotine vaping, governments are pushing forward unreasonable legislation, we’re constantly pressed with coming up with solutions to unsolvable riddles, we’re being stigmatized and excluded from conversations that affect our lives- the list goes on. Outrage is a natural reaction. But it isn’t very welcoming. 

We could potentially draw more people in if we laid out small, easy tasks that could be done and then thanked people for that effort- even if they choose to drop back out after completing one thing. Help someone craft a letter to a government representative. Encourage letters to the editor and op eds. Send someone a link to a survey or petition. Every little thing does count. We can try to be someone that people look forward to seeing again or joining forces with. Think about how you feel in this moment and try to recognize that however exhausted you may be as a result of months or years of effort, some people are exhausted just looking at you. They don’t necessarily want that for themselves. It looks heavy. 

I’m not saying plaster a smile on your face and pretend that you’re not hurting. Just bear in mind that if we are only ever angry or shouting about what people didn’t do, or we publicly shame people for not participating or for making a mistake or for disagreeing with us on one or more finer points, it’s asking a lot for other people to want that for themselves too. Even writing this, I know that I will incur the wrath of some people because they disagree with one or more things that I’ve said. I find it draining sometimes- it can be difficult to muster the energy to fight for a group that attacks each other with as much ferocity as it attacks its real opponents. But I am committed and whether you like me or I like you in doesn’t impact my willingness to fight for you. But for a lot of people that would be (or already has been) a deal breaker. 

So, in summary, a few things that we can do to broaden our advocacy circle: Branch out, call people instead of relying on standard social media circles. Try not to prejudge the reasons people haven’t gotten involved. Focus on our common goals, on the principle of what we are trying to do, more than the details. We are not sitting down with authorities to hash out any binding agreement, no one has offered us anything concrete in return for proposing sacrifices. If you see common ground with other people or movements, by all means- reach out, see if they might get involved in one or more efforts. Try to make room in the tent, not restrict it. Try to generate excitement about participating. This battle is most likely years out from being won, not months- we’re going to need to energize people and attract new people over time.

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