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CASAA's Executive Director Shares Update

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Alex Clark comes from a background in customer service and logistics. Shortly after discovering the value of Tobacco Harm Reduction, he began volunteering his time for CASAA and was appointed to serve on CASAA’s Board of Directors in 2014, and later that same year was elected as CASAA’s legislative director. Clark stepped down from the Board of Directors in January 2016 in order to accept a position as CASAA’s legislative coordinator and was promoted by the Board to CEO in March 2017. Clark shares with Cyclops Vapor the reason why he first entered the world of vaping, CASAA’s recent victories and why calls to action and awareness are really, really important.

Can you talk about the personal reason as to how you saw a value in vaping as a tobacco harm reduction product and why you started volunteering?

What motivates me is my initial shock of preferring an electronic cigarette over the burning tobacco I’d been committed to for 21 years. If I quit smoking by accident, millions of other smokers deserve the same opportunity. I decided to get involved after I looked at my state’s indoor clean air law (New Jersey, at the time) and saw that vaping had been added to the indoor smoking ban in 2010. It was instantly clear to me that this was going to be a huge issue and that consumer voices were needed to push back against misleading messages about the risk of vaping vs. smoking. I spent most of 2013 reading and listening to find out more about the issue and the best way to be involved.

If you could name your top concerns for CASAA within our industry currently, what would they be?

Awareness is always going to be the top concern. Whether we’re talking about people’s knowledge of regulations affecting their business or legislative threats at the local and state level that would restrict use and access, if people aren’t paying attention, vape shops will be closing seemingly without warning.

As a consumer organization our focus is on the issues that consumers face. To frame this as a concern for the industry, we are always interested in helping businesses share vital information with their customers about how to protect access to vapor products. Regulations affecting where, how, and what vapor products are sold directly affect consumer access. Businesses should feel some measure of obligation to inform their customers of these issues — and how they can get involved.

Obviously, the FDA/flavor ANPRM is also a big one. I noticed the survey on your site regarding the topic.

Can you provide your stance on why flavoring is so important in the harm reduction effort and how vapers need to be aware of this?

Harm reduction works because it’s all about presenting people with safer alternatives that they will actually choose to use. The role of flavored vapor products, in the simplest terms possible, is to give smokers a reason to choose a safer nicotine product and stick with it. Although many smokers are interested in a product that seamlessly replicates their smoking experience, we eventually discover a wider, more exciting world of flavors and smells. Ultimately, anything that distances us from the experience of smoking helps us remain smoke-free.

What vapers need to be aware of is the effort by anti-smoking/vaping/nicotine campaigners to medicalize alternatives to smoking. The ANPRM uses concerning language (i.e. “certain flavors”) that suggests the FDA will only approve a handful of flavored products. If I had to wager a guess, I would say that we’re looking at variety being reduced to the same flavors approved for nicotine replacement products.

If such a small selection of products is what we’re left with, it’s hard to imagine independent vapor retailers and manufacturers being able to survive. This is a looming threat to consumer access and cuts out the heart of what makes vaping such an effective alternative to smoking — variety and customizability.

Can you also discuss some recent victories?

During the 2017-2018 state legislative session, taxes were kept at bay in New York, Washington and Kentucky. Generally speaking, the fact that most states do not impose extra taxes on vapor products is a victory we can point to year after year.

Even though FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb was ultimately dismissive of consumer testimonials in his announcement of the flavors ANPRM, his admission that they do have an effect on him is a small victory. We can’t claim a significant influence on the FDA’s decision to delay the premarket tobacco application (PMTA) deadline to 2022, but I believe Dr. Gottlieb is listening. The concern that the vapor industry will effectively be shut down by the FDA regulations and the net-negative public health consequences of denying smokers access to safer alternatives is starting to resonate with federal regulators.

Let’s talk about the research. There is so much out there, good and bad, and jurisdictions banning are vaping left and right without proper education. What is your advice on this topic?

Presenting a bunch of research to a lawmaker is hit or miss. While a few legislators might actually sit down and read the highlights of a study, most don’t have the bandwidth to consider the details of every issue that comes across their desks. If advocates are even able to schedule a meeting with lawmakers or their staff, they need to be prepared to provide highlights of research and humanize it. This is why we encourage everyone to share their personal story when writing or calling lawmakers. Vaping needs the human face of the consumer so that it isn’t easily dismissed as “just another tobacco company plot.”

I hear a lot in my interviewing life that business owners get “tired” of call to actions and vapers themselves tend to ignore them. A recent interviewee said one of her pet peeves is that states will typically rely on one or two businesses to lobby and advocate instead of stepping up to the plate in terms of legislative efforts. Can you talk about why it is so important for everyone to get involved, and perhaps highlight a couple of current CTAs that are of imperative importance?

Advocacy fatigue is real and we are always working to find a balance. In an effort to not wear people out, CASAA uses digital advocacy services that enable us to engage members on local, state, or federal levels. If someone in Florida receives all of the alerts from Minnesota, I imagine they’d get pretty tired of it.

When I think about why people may not get involved I tend to refer back to my first few weeks of vaping. I was so amazed at how easily I quit smoking by switching to vaping that I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to make e-cigarettes hard to get. I think a lot of businesses and consumers feel like vaping as we know it can’t go away. That’s the simple answer. The more complicated answer is that, generally speaking, I believe people feel disenfranchised by the legislative and political process and have settled on the notion that their voice doesn’t matter.

But the opposite is true. Everyone’s voice matters and everyone’s voice is needed. There isn’t going to be one person who will come along to save us and individuals can save themselves some grief by avoiding the tendency to think that they have to take some sort of monumental action to save vaping. We are all in this together and, frankly, we need more people to get involved. Together and as many we are building both a support community and a voting block that cannot be dismissed by lawmakers or candidates.

Is there anything else you wanted to point out to the Cyclops readers?

If you aren’t already a CASAA member, please join (www.casaa.org). Membership is free and we don’t actually send out a lot of email. We will be putting out CTA’s for the ANPRM comment period soon and we want everyone to lend their voice.

Please also make sure you are registered to vote. You can access candidate info and voter registration tools at www.THRvoter.org.