Common ground

A pragmatic health advocate, David Sweanor, is recognized for philanthropy.

By George Gay

There seems to be an unwritten rule that says you should never talk to an adversary until circumstances dictate that you have to talk to him, no matter how much harm is caused in the meantime. To start with, you simply lob rocks at him in the certain knowledge that your rocks are bigger and sharper than are his, and that soon he will admit to this difference in firepower and capitulate. But, after a while, your arm becomes tired and your head sore, and you become conscious of the idea that there could be another way of settling your differences that would result in less harm being inflicted on both sides. With any luck, some of the rocks that fell short of their target will have mingled in no man’s land, forming a little common—if bumpy—ground. At this point, talks can start. They’re a bit formal to start with—stiff even—but they loosen up once you realize that the other guy isn’t all bad and, in fact, occasionally makes some fair points.

Such a scenario has been mapped out during many government campaigns against freedom fighters/terrorists, and it reflects the course of the tobacco industry’s dealings with public health campaigners/anti-tobacco activists. The tobacco wars weren’t fought with rocks, of course, but they did involve statistics and arguments so weighted that they should have been banned under some international convention. If anybody is under the impression that truth first took flight during last year’s votes in the U.K.’s EU referendum and the U.S. presidential election, they should look back at the history of the tobacco wars.

But at least we have reached the point where, barring some skirmishes, the wars are largely over. Both sides have made significant concessions. The major tobacco companies have stated publicly that cigarettes are addictive and can cause a wide range of diseases that are often fatal. And some thought leaders in the tobacco control community have conceded that, even given this danger, it is not an easy matter for people simply to stop consuming tobacco and nicotine in any form, a view that has led them to focus on tobacco’s most dangerous and most commonly used product, the cigarette.

Stifling the conversation

The common ground, of course, is the concept of harm reduction in the form of e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn devices, some smokeless tobacco products and no doubt other devices that researchers and entrepreneurs are developing. But it is also made up of the need for the industry—now the tobacco and nicotine industry—and tobacco control to work together to ensure that the process doesn’t take any wrong turns on its new journey toward massively less hazardous alternatives for consumers.

Given the importance of the above, it seems odd that some would want to stop the nascent conversation between the industry and tobacco control. But that is clearly the case. The seventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which was held in India in November, barred from attending—even as an observer—anybody associated with tobacco or nicotine, whether they were industry players or government employees, along with a lot of other groups, including the media, and individuals.

And before Vapor Voice’s sister publication Tobacco Reporter staged the Global Tobacco & Nicotine Forum (GTNF) in Belgium in October, at least some tobacco control advocates and researchers who were scheduled to attend received a letter from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention, informing them that these organizations hoped that the “misunderstanding” that had led to the prospective participants signing up to attend would soon be “rectified.”

Even leaving aside the fact that the letter seemed to insult the intelligence of those to whom it was addressed by suggesting that they didn’t have the wit to realize that a tobacco and nicotine forum staged by a tobacco and nicotine industry magazine would attract tobacco players, this was an extraordinary missive. It seemed to be aimed at raining down “friendly fire” on tobacco control’s advanced units as they used the GTNF to gauge whether the industry was serious about tobacco harm reduction and whether significant numbers of people could be encouraged to quit smoking by switching to the new generation of products being offered by the industry, the use of which might not be 100 percent safe—what is?—but that are by most people’s reckoning hugely safer than is smoking.

But if that weren’t insult enough, in reporting on the GTNF, The Times newspaper, while generally supporting the case for tobacco harm reduction using new-generation nicotine products, turned its fire on the industry, which was to have been expected, but also on five of the nonindustry tobacco control advocates and nicotine researchers and experts who attended. In fact, its aim when it came to the nonindustry people was so far off target that it retracted the stories and had to issue an apology, saying that, despite what it had previously written, the five were “internationally respected for their long-standing global work to reduce smoking, and their work on the issue of nicotine harm reduction,” and that their work “has not been tainted by the influence of tobacco industry funding.”

Vapor Voice asked one of those who had been named in the Times report, David Sweanor, a long-standing public health expert and adjunct professor of law with the Centre for Health Law, Policy & Ethics at the University of Ottawa, what his reaction had been to the newspaper’s piece, and he simply replied, “Here we go again.”

“I have studied the history of public health and know that virtually any rational advance engenders vicious attacks from those committed to the status quo,” he said in an email exchange. “Their challenges are not based on facts but on very personal attacks. It is disturbing but it is very common, and I feel I am walking in the footsteps of many of the historical public health innovators I have long admired.”

Sweanor made the point that it was not just “working with” the industry that was condemned as on a par with “working for” the industry, but any contact at all, even if you were simply trying to understand the dynamics within and between the various players within the tobacco/nicotine universe by, sensibly, talking to the various players. “This really hits home when senior anti-tobacco people claim that there is no difference between, say, [Philip Morris International] and an independent vape shop—that they are all, equally, ‘industry’ and thus the enemy!” he said.

Quiet philanthropist

Sweanor wasn’t chosen randomly to answer the question about how he had reacted to the suggestion that he had been working on tobacco harm reduction for the money. On Nov. 17, not long after attending the GTNF and the publication of the Times piece, he was named by the Ottawa chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals as the city’s Outstanding Individual Philanthropist for 2016, an award for which he had been nominated by HealthBridge. It turns out that, far from accepting tobacco money, he has been working on tobacco harm reduction for free, while donating millions of dollars to charity.

Sixteen years ago, Sweanor created a family fund with the Community Foundation of Ottawa, but he has only recently chosen to go public about his philanthropy. And it is interesting to note that his reasons for giving anonymously at first, for lately going public and for his support for tobacco harm reduction are all grounded in his rationality and pragmatism.

As Don Butler wrote in a piece for the Ottawa Citizen, Sweanor gave anonymously when he set up his family fund with the foundation in 2001 because he wanted to protect his young children from the glare of publicity; because he saw anonymity as representing the highest level of gift giving, one where you expected absolutely nothing in return; and because it shielded him from being bombarded by requests from charities he wasn’t supporting. But when the circumstances surrounding his giving started to change, Sweanor decided to discard his cloak of anonymity. With his children grown into young adults, it was time to go public in the hope of encouraging other people to look at setting up funds within the foundation.

Rationality and practicality were there from the start. In a video interview posted on the Ottawa Citizen website (, Sweanor describes how he spent his legal career doing public policy work to reduce smoking. He said he had found there were many things that could be done that were incredibly cost-effective. There were things that could be done that saved a tremendous number of lives for very little in terms of time, effort and money. And there were so many issues like that in the world, so many things where people could cost-effectively make a difference, and that was why he had worked with HealthBridge, which he described as a really cost-effective international development body working on a wide range of projects in a number of countries.

And rationality and practicality are still there. Having spent much of his working life in the front lines of the fight against smoking, he now thinks that e-cigarettes could be one of the biggest breakthroughs ever in public health. And watching him speaking on the Ottawa Citizen video, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is not going to be shaken from this view by a few sticks and stones. If you want to change his opinion, you’re going to have to venture onto the common ground—armed with some impressive arguments.