European journalists recently investigated the relationship between public opposition to e-cigarette regulation and tobacco companies and other corporate interests. Last week their findings were published in the French newspaper of record, Le Monde: VAPING: The real dollars behind fake consumer organisations.
While their focus was mostly on activities in Europe, the report also spotlighted connections between the Canadian Rights4Vapers group and tobacco and other business interests. With additional information from Canadian government agencies it now seems clear that this group is far from independent of the vested interests of tobacco companies.
Follow the money ….
The investigative team set out to trace the backers for activities organized by the World Vaping Association (including a bus touring across Europe to rallying opposition to e-cigarette regulations) and for other pro-vaping actions – such as those described here a few weeks ago.
They demonstrated that these activities were executed with the participation of anti-regulatory think tanks like the Consumer Choice Centre, Students for Liberty and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. And they dug up the financial connection between tobacco companies and the libertarian Koch funders to these think tanks and non-profits. (The figure below is from the Le Monde article).
This media report elaborated on the connections between tobacco companies and the Atlast network of pro-business think tanks that had been documented previously by a research team at Simon Fraser University.
The Canadian operations ….
The Le Monde investigation noted the parallels with the Canadian pro-vaping rallies of this summer managed by Rights4Vapers.
Rights4Vapers surfaced in the spring of 2019. It identifies as a “vaper consumers rights movement”, “an organization of vaping advocates dedicated to the advancement of Canadian-based research on vaping” and “an informal collection of committed volunteers”.
Although Rights4Vapers does not pro-actively disclose their budget or source of revenue, it is clear that they have money to spend. This summer (with their Quebec wing, la Coalition des droits des vapoteurs du Québec), they brought a publicity tour through southern Ontario and Quebec. The campaign costs would have been substantial, in addition to travel costs and campaign material, they worked with PR handlers for some events, engaged a videographer and wrapped their campaign bus.
Rights4Vapers activities are directed by vaping store owners.
Those who conducted the protest tour may have volunteered their efforts, but they were not consumer volunteers. The three leaders are vape store owners and staff (Maria Papiannoy of EcigFlavourium; Christina Xydous of La Vapote and Yolanda Watson of 705 E-liquids).
The Rights4Vapers Team has additional connections to vaping, tobacco and foreign business interests.
As shown in the figure below, the leadership identified on Rights4Vapers website includes several links to tobacco industry funded and associated agencies, including representatives of two foreign lobby bodies.
- Dr. Gopal Bhatnagar founded the 180Smokes chain (with more than 30 vape stores).
- Ian Irvine, as described earlier, has completed contracts funded by Philip Morris International.
- Michael Landl heads the Consumer Choice Center-associated World Vapers Alliance
- David Williams is the head of the U.S.-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which is lpart of the Atlas network of tobacco-friendly advocacy groups.
The financial agent for Rights4Vapers is the head of the Vaping Industry Trade Association.
Protesting federal regulations during an election period required Rights4Vapers to register with Elections Canada as a third party. In doing so, they revealed that their financial agent was Michael Meathrel, owner of Dvine laboratories and chairman of the Vaping Industry Trade Association.
The Vaping Industry Trade Association (VITA) represents the interests of multinational tobacco-nicotine companies as well as domestic vaping producers. When it was established in 2019, three of the four founding directors lead the government-public relations operations of the multinational tobacco and nicotine companies. (Two of these companies have since left the organization, one citing policy differences.)
Déja vu all over again
Rights4Vapers is not the first attempt by corporations to try to influence Canadian health policy by setting up and funding smokers’ rights organizations and other fake grass-roots (‘astroturf’) groups.
There was the ‘Alliance for Sponsorship Freedom” and “Coalition 51” (opposing advertising restrictions), the Smokers’ Freedom Society (challenging science on health impact), “My Choice” and the “Fair Air Association” (fighting restrictions on smoking in public place), and “The National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco” (fighting against regulation and taxes). Usually evidence that these events were established and directed by tobacco companies was only made solid long after the policy-decisions had been made. (Five years ago a BAT document was leaked which showed how they manipulated retailers and municipalities to fuel fears of contraband cigarettes in order to avoid taxes and health regulations.)
The cost of inaction
Rights4Vapers illustrates the weakness of Canada’s implementation of Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – the obligation to protect public health policies “from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”
The Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control recently assessed nations on their efforts to address tobacco industry interference, and this year ranked Canada 28th among 80 countries.
Five years ago, Canadian health groups recommended a number of specific actions to Health Canada to reduce the ability of tobacco companies to reach policy makers through front groups. Despite assurances from then Minister of Health Jane Philpott that Health Canada was looking to develop “domestic policy guidelines on Article 5.3 in collaboration with federal, provincial/territorial and civil society tobacco control partners,” no such guidelines were developed. Based on Canada’s 2020 report to the FCTC secretariat, this intention has been abandoned.
Greater transparency would allow parliamentarians and other policy makers to distinguish between authentic consumer concerns and industry lobbying. It would allow Elections Canada greater confidence that the prohibitions in Canada’s Elections Act on foreign agencies (like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance) participating in third party activities during federal elections, and on foreign funding (like contributions from the Consumer Choice Center) paying for these election-period activities. It would allow the Commissioner of Lobbying greater confidence that companies are not doing a run-around their obligations to document meetings with policy-makers.