When my client published the report I had written on youth smoking in North Wales I was shocked at what happened next. The report, which focused on why girls aged 11-12 years start smoking, uncovered some interesting findings that have since led the team in Wales to rocket ahead and take up the difficult task of preventing young people from taking up smoking in the first place. But it was the very small paragraph on electronic cigarettes that saw the report feature in national press and started a war with an enthusiastic, if not overly passionate vaping community.
Now all those people that know me personally will know that I like a good debate. And there are always two sides to every story, which I always like to hear, but what I found shocking was the tactics used by some pro-vapers to get their point across. These tactics can only be described as bullying, intimidating, personal and bordering on threatening behaviour. For a group of people keen to keep their freedom to vape, they are quick to quash the freedom of others to speak. And that is when they lose the argument in my eyes.
Over a number of weeks our twitter feed @socialchangeuk and my personal twitter account (which has since been locked down) was trolled excessively. Artwork produced by Social Change UK parodied. 100's of tweets 'criticising' the report, email abuse sent straight to my inbox. My staff attacked. Although not keen to block people on twitter, the abuse directed to my team was not acceptable and I took the unusual step of blocking people.
It turns out that we were not the only people who fell foul to twitter abuse. I was shocked to hear that respected people like Professor Martin McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Professor John Ashton, president of the Faculty of Public Health were abused and trolled on Twitter for expressing their views on e-cigarettes. Both have been parodied on websites and attacked on a very personal level that includes the targeting of their children and relatives.
Despite being called a “c***”, “asshole” and “jizzweasel” by vapers for supporting the statement by the World Health Organization [WHO] who have expressed caution on electronic cigarettes, Professor Ashton is facing an official complaint after he retaliated, calling one vaper a “c***” and another an “onanist”. I am sure many people would agree that bad language is not acceptable but it is hard not to crack under the pressure of such abuse.
But lets remember that this is the strategy. Anyone who speaks against or even questions electronic cigarettes are targeted and worn down until they can’t speak anymore and this can’t be good for public health. Martin said in The Times “I now put very little about e-cigarettes on Twitter. I’m worried about junior staff, it’s intimidating for them and people could be frightened off by this. I’ve warned people off doing PhDs in this area. It’s really upsetting for some people with the sheer volume of abuse.”
I have met a number of people who like to vape and believe me, not every person who uses e-cigarettes acts in this way. Many are appalled at some of the things they read on twitter.
I was asked to remove my blog on e-cigarettes. I refused. Fortunately I am able to publish my views freely without the fear of dismissal. Others are not so fortunate. And although I dislike being called names, my mother taught me something important growing up… ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me’. So lets ignore them, filter their noise out and continue unabashed.