By Alyssa Stahr
Since making its first appearance at Vapercon West this summer, NOTBlowingSmoke.org has furthered its reputation as a premier organization fighting for vapers’ rights. The chief goal of NOTBlowingSmoke, according to its website, is a sustainable, professional and, most importantly, transparent approach to advocacy efforts. The original NOTBlowingSmoke website was built during a 38- hour session in an attempt to provide some counterbalance to a misleading anti-vapor campaign and website (“Still Blowing Smoke”) that was to be launched by the California Department of Public Health. Both websites launched within the same hour on Sunday, March 22, 2015. Within 48 hours, NOTBlowingSmoke gained 100,000 unique visitors. The same could not be said for the Still Blowing Smoke campaign. VAPE rounded up Stefan Didak, Jason Downing and Danielle Bloss to talk about the group’s quick burst onto the circuit, goals for 2016 and more ways vapers can get involved.
VAPE: You are fairly new to the scene, and you’ve made quite an impression already. Why do you think you’ve become popular so fast?
Downing: I think that one of the keys to the success of NOTBlowingSmoke is the fact that we’ve taken very complicated concepts and distilled them down into sound bytes, for lack of a better term. It makes these difficult concepts easier to understand and much more accessible to the average vaper. When we look at all the regulatory stuff going on out there, there’s a lot of complicated business going on. And being able to translate that, and even the science, into an easily consumable form, is absolutely key.
Didak: I also think it might be that a lot of vapers were getting really tired with all of the misleading propaganda and all the stories out there in the papers. Then, to add insult to injury, they’re hit with TV commercials, and there was a response instantly. It certainly galvanized the different vaper groups, and I could tell pretty much within the first week that a lot of people who were really tired and no longer interested were suddenly sparked again, and their fighting spirit came back.
Bloss: I think the way, too, that Stefan initially launched NOTBlowingSmoke—it was a head-to-head, no questions about it, punch back to California about what they were doing. The graphics were very similar, the name was very similar; it was obvious that that was our return punch, essentially. I think it’s probably the strongest way it’s ever been done in the industry to say, “We’re not going to take this.” It was a very obvious counter-campaign, and I think people really gravitated to that.
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Didak: It also really helped that it launched within two hours of the original Still Blowing site launching, which made it all the more fun. Apparently, their $7 million did not cover setting up the social media accounts and proper SEO, so in a way, it was almost like taking candy from a baby.
VAPE: You anticipated that fairly well. Was this something you knew you were going to do?
Didak: Yes. Doing something like this is not the first time I’ve done it. It’s certainly the first time I’ve done it in vaping. I got the heads up from someone, who notified me that this campaign was going to launch, and I found the name and the website, and it was only a landing page. But, landing pages don’t generally stop me from seeing other pages, if you know what you’re doing, so at that point, I decided, “I’m going to do something about this, because this is an opportunity.” So, I spent the $12 for a domain name and hooked it up to one of my servers that I use for my business, and pretty much spent 38 hours just building the site. I didn’t even feel it was complete when I launched it, but it certainly got the job done.
VAPE: Jason and Danielle, can you tell us about your backgrounds and how you ventured over to NOTBlowingSmoke?
Downing: The last time I had a cigarette was Oct. 31, 2013. I got involved in advocacy almost immediately— probably four months in—right as the Minnesota legislative session was getting started. I had a peripheral view of here’s what advocacy is in the industry. It sort of took off from there. I got more involved; I started helping people to write emails or to understand some of the concepts that are happening in Minnesota. Just a little bit more than a year ago, Stefan and I hooked up on Reddit and then Twitter and then eventually in PMs. We had been talking off and on for probably six months by the point that Still Blowing Smoke was being launched. Stefan talked with me shortly after he found out that the site was going live in a couple of days. We started working together, bouncing ideas off of each other. How can we counteract this? Borrow their design or their model? What ended up happening was that, in the initial launch phase, we so completely dominated all social media channels with just a small group of people starting it out that California, I assume their PR firm, put some money into Google AdWords to get a higher search result, because we were in the number-one spot with searching for Still Blowing Smoke for 72 hours.
Bloss: I made my first Truth About Vaping video in April. Within 24 hours of that going viral, a friend of mine hooked me up with Stefan, and he and I met at the California SB24 hearing in Sacramento. He had been shown my video by our mutual friend, and we started talking. That’s when we started discussing turning NOTBlowingSmoke into a nonprofit. I kinda just fell in line with what they were doing with the videos.
VAPE: Can you delve a little more into your origin story and the first couple of weeks after NOTBlowingSmoke launched?
Didak: In the first 48 hours, we had 100,000 unique visitors, which, knowing a bit or two about web traffic, that was just off-the-charts amazing. About four days in, I got an Instagram message from Camille Winans, saying, “You need to take this to Instagram.” She started the Instagram channel for us, which now is closing in on 17,000 followers, and she did that pretty much singlehandedly. The very first week, everybody who knew how to reach me started PMing me on Facebook, sending me emails and ringing my phone. I pretty much spent no time sleeping, and there was no time to literally talk to everybody. It was like, “Holy crap, what have I done?”
Then, the questions started in the weeks thereafter. There’s a campaign here in such and such state, could you do something here? Could you address this topic? This was just a one-shop website built for one purpose only. Where are we going to get the time to do that, and how to do this properly? Then, we started thinking about taking this opportunity, and maybe we can turn this a proper nonprofit and build something that nobody has yet managed,
and that is to start the first actual advocacy jobs. See if we can get advocates actually employed and paid to do this full time. Because, at this point, it’s no longer a volunteer effort, where a few hours a day goes a long way. It needs a lot more people and a lot more time. And, unfortunately, nobody’s going to spend 20 hours a day unpaid. The worst that could happen is that we fail, and even if we fail, we accomplish a lot along the way.
VAPE: What are some of the biggest issues you’re working on right now?
Didak: The first of the states we helped was Minnesota, because they were facing a 25 cent-per-milliliter tax. We did a mini NOTBlowingSmoke campaign there. We helped the folks from Breathe Easier down in Alabama with a bit of narrative, because they were facing a special session. Right now, we’re sort of scrambling in between being at events, because now, everybody wants us to be everywhere. In between events, we’re structuring NOTBlowingSmoke, working on the new website, working on the bylaws, because we’ve only passed the first stage. The next step is making sure the finances are in order for the non profit status. It’s a lot more work than any of us anticipated. I’ve noticed with all of these events [is that] it’s really great meeting people, explaining stuff, getting great questions, seeing how excited people are getting, but at the same time, you’re not getting anything else done.
Downing: The challenge for me is my daytime job is not in the industry. So, I have to work around my full-time day job in addition to having to request time off in addition to doing all this stuff on the side.
Didak: Which is exactly why the goal of NOTBlowingSmoke
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is to provide advocacy jobs, because we need people like Jason to be able to do this full time. If you look at our opponents, all the so-called public health organizations, they have paid staff and all they do all day is attack us.
Bloss: It’s not sustainable working 10- to 12-hour days at your regular job and then having to go home and try to do a ton of stuff for advocacy and NOTBlowingSmoke. It gets insane with travel and with everything else.
VAPE: You can’t do it forever; something has to give eventually.
Didak: My hope has always been that if we can get enough people involved and build a really good team, we can sort of scale back our hours and be a much better, well-oiled machine.
Downing: I think I can safely speak for nearly everybody involved in advocacy that we’re not doing this because of a paycheck. We’re not doing it for anything other than our sincere belief that vaping is a much less harmful alternative to smoking. It’s something that should be promoted. That’s why we are so much more effective, even on shoestring budgets. Every dollar we spend is worth at least 10 of anybody else’s. We all have that passion going into it. If you attend legislative hearings and you listen to testimony from these groups like ALA or ACS or any of the anti-vaping folks, very few of them do you get the impression that they have a sincere belief in what they’re saying.
VAPE: There are a lot of myths out there. Can you talk about the top myths about e-cigarettes swirling around?
Didak: The biggest myth of all is that they are just as harmful, if not more harmful, than regular cigarettes. We’ve seen billboards popping up that pretty much say that in Missouri and in Pierce County in Washington. It seems that this is a narrative that is spreading across multiple states, so that must be the narrative that we go after. Taxation and all of the other issues are big enough, but once you start scaring smokers into not trying an alternative or, worse, sending vapers back to smoking because they start getting concerned about the product they’re using, you’re doing actual harm. We’re looking into doing something similar that NOTBlowingSmoke did, and that’s to launch a billboard right next to one of theirs. The billboard itself is not going to be massively effective; it’s not going to change people’s minds. But, the pictures of the billboard floating around in social media will amplify it. The concept is taking viral content online and taking it into the offline world and reaching all the people that you normally can’t reach. If you do that with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, but a very serious message, placing a billboard next to an attack billboard, that might actually be funny enough that other people start paying attention.
Downing: The other main myth that we end up having to deal with is the … I hesitate to even call it a theory, because at this point, I don’t feel like it meets the scientific definition, but the gateway theory. We see all this business around that e-cigarettes are a gateway to smoking. We know from population level data that’s not the case. We clearly see that, despite significant increases in use of e-cigarettes, the smoking rate continues to decline. That is now at historic lows in most states. That extends to both to youth smoking and adult smoking. A lot of the studies that purport to demonstrate a gateway effect are the result of poor study design. They are designed in such a way as to basically predict the outcome. In some ways, that’s not an invalid study design. There are other instances in where that could be very valid, but when it comes to gateway, the reliance seems to be on misuse of data or misinterpretation of data. We have CDC surveys; even CDC comes out with these press releases saying this is clearly happening. You have to understand: the questions they are asking are not the right ones. We see uptake among non vapers very minimal. Best estimate is about 1 percent of non-vapers have tried an e-cigarette. Even there, the uptake in terms of continued usage is very minimal.
VAPE: Is it really all about money?
Bloss: I, for one, do think it’s all about the money.
Didak: It’s one of those things where a lot of people will go, ‘Oh, that’s nothing but a conspiracy theory.‛ If you just look at the surface level, you could interpret it that way. Once you actually get to meet with legislators, especially the hostile ones, and you know that they know better and they keep repeating the lies, and you look at how they are funded and where their campaign contributions come from, it is really difficult not to see that it’s all about the money for a lot of people. For the public health organizations, it might not be considered the money, but it’s still people’s jobs, and a lot of people at the lower levels are just doing their jobs, and they want to keep their jobs. It’s an entire economic system that is profiting from tobacco sales, and negative effects of tobacco use really drives what’s happening.
Downing: At the same time, we do, in this industry, face the stigma of the fact the tobacco companies did lie about everything for five decades. We have this new technology that is one of the most promising developments in people quitting smoking combustible tobacco. But we have to overcome the ingrained public opinion that has been built up over decades of misinformation from the tobacco industry.
VAPE: What are the best ways to get involved with NOTBlowingSmoke?
Didak: We need to get funding to get the paperwork started and do what we needed to do. What we’re actually hoping for is not to have to rely on donations in the future. We’re looking at different industry stakeholders and working with several of them do to a type of co-branding. For example, NOTBlowingSmoke is very prominent on packaging on some e-liquid, it has our short narratives, it helps reach out to vapers who are unaware of what’s going on and we get a
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small portion of the profits from their sales. So, we help them a little with drafting their marketing message and basically using our intellectual real estate to help them in the market. Advocacy groups always need to go out and raise funds and ask for donations, and this tires everybody out. If you want to have advocacy properly funded, it has to be integrated within the industry. And the only way you can do that is if everybody is happy and everybody does it for the right reasons. But, at the same time, they’re getting something back, because this industry also is about making money. Let the retailers make money, let the wholesalers make money, let the manufacturers make money. Just figure out a way to get some of that funneled to where it actually needs to go. We have three e-liquids out there that we have a strategic partnership with, and there’s probably going to be seven or more in the next few months.
Bloss: Donating and supporting the liquid lines that support us are ways to get involved. Also, things such as reposting or re-branding our social media messages. We have a document that talks about what you can do in 15 minutes or less to help [advocate] that doesn’t cost you any money. Sharing the correct, accurate information about how vaping has helped you to help with the public opinion battle. There’s a variety of things that people can do without opening your wallets. For lack of a better term, spread the good news about vaping.
Didak: Every vaper should register to vote. In the next year, this is going to be hugely important.
Downing: For anybody who is not heavily involved in advocacy, don’t get discouraged. Everybody gets that way sometimes, even us. It’s important to remember that all of the calls we make to legislators, all of the emails, every time we talk to someone about vaping, those things all are impactful. When we round up 1,400 emails and send them to the Minnesota legislature, we get people saying in committee who are against us that they got more emails about vaping than any other item in that legislative session. Try to stay positive about this stuff. The main goal is for us all to work together as a cohesive unit. When we spend time working against each other, we lose time to fight for each other.
For more information, visit http://notblowingsmoke.org
BE A VOICE FOR VAPING
ONE OF US WILL NEVER BE AS STRONG AS ALL OF US.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE IN 15 MINUTES OR FEWER
One of the most powerful tools we command as vapers is our word of mouth. Many vapers are very comfortable with social media, extremely vocal about how vaping has helped improve their lives, and most importantly, just as passionate as any of the “industry leaders.” In order to create real change, we need your help. NOTBlowingSmoke is challenging you to become a champion for vaping. The goal—spend just 15 minutes each day working to change public perception and bring the message to the people who need to hear it the most: non-vapers and current smokers.
* Offer to explain to a friend, family member or co-worker why vaping is important to you and to current smokers. Remind them that we are fighting for a future without smoking, that we are fighting for children, so they do not have to suffer losing loved ones to combustible tobacco.
* NOTBlowingSmoke’s own Bruce Nye has a great piece about this at: http://bit.ly/1dilu0c
* Write an “elevator speech” – a short (30 seconds or so) piece about what vaping is, what it isn’t, and why you’d like to see it continue. There are many resources online, but http://bit.ly/1faQBqX is a good starting point.
* If you live in an area with pending proposals to restrict or tax vapor products, send an e-mail to your elected official(s) expressing why you would like them to vote for tobacco harm reduction.
* Introduce a smoker to vaping—explain how the devices work, what your experience has been, even let him or her try your device.
HERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU CAN DO IN FEWER THAN FIVE MINUTES TO BE A CATALYST FOR CHANGING OPINIONS:
* Join or check your state organization’s Facebook group.
* Send a short thank-you note to a government official who voted for tobacco harm reduction policies or spoke out in favor of vaping.
* Donate to organizations campaigning for vaping. With enough people involved, even small amounts go a long way.
* Ask your favorite shop(s) what they’re doing to help sustain the industry.
* Leave a respectful comment on posts from anti-vaping groups or poorly-researched articles.
* Share well-written news articles to your social media feeds and offer to discuss with non-vaping friends.
* Share calls to action from CASAA and local organizations; encourage others to participate.
* Twitter or lnstagram user? Retweet/repost content from NOTBlowingSmoke, CASAA, SFATA, AVA and other tobacco harm reduction organizations.