November 06, 2013

The SFATA Fly-In: A Personal Account

Extraordinary.  Simply Extraordinary.

There’s a kind of mischievous smile that walks across my face when someone tickles my competitive bone.  The right side of my face pulls my mouth into a smirk and my left eyebrow will often flick up with interest.  There is an enthusiasm behind that smile that is difficult to describe.

Yesterday, I stood in a room with roughly 30 other people that all had a version of that smile on their faces.  The energy, the atmosphere, and, most of all, the people were all quite extraordinary.

We were all decompressing after a full day of advocating across Capital Hill as part of SFATA’s Day on the Hill event.  SFATA is the largest U.S.-based smokeless alternatives (i.e. e-cig) industry trade organization.  Its membership (now close to 50 global members) represents a category of vapor companies looking to act responsibly and be treated fairly.  The goal of the event was to convey a need for sensible and deliberate regulatory action for the electronic cigarette industry.

But, before even that, we wanted representatives, staffers, and various committee members to recognize one thing — that the electronic cigarette industry at large is not simply the actions or statements of one or two errant entities or the misleading interpretations put forth by anti-smoking fanatics.  The e-cig industry is a robust market of small, medium, and large companies, retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers that exist at a town, city, state, and national level.  But at the core are individuals.  Many of those individuals simply want to know that their voice can be heard and their concerns can be considered.

SFATA’s Fly-In (an industry organized advocacy event) was my own first experience with D.C. advocacy (a less stigmatized word for lobbying).  Even so, I’ve seen the disaster that poor planning and lacking preparation can bring.  This was a particular concern as most e-cig operations only formed in the last few years and the industry at large has perhaps less experience than even myself when it comes to advocacy.

Fortunately, the first full day (Monday the 4th) was dedicated to preparing for a day of meetings to follow on Tuesday.  SFATA’s supporting lawyer outfit, Venable, provided nearly 6 hours of presentations, coaching, Q&A time, and more on what to expect.  It sounds a lot more boring than it actually was.  The industry is still so much the wild west. There’s constantly new information and new goings on to consider.  I, for one, will not be lacking interesting topics to cover for at least the next month.

A reception that evening provided a much more casual opportunity to find out what everyone else is doing, share war stories from the political, commercial, or community trenches, and generally find out who else is out there.  Some Washington staffers and media showed up to find out a little more about the industry and SFATA.  If nothing else, it helped most of the folks in attendance flesh out the conversations they were planning to have the following day.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t an uphill battle (Hah! A Capital Hill pun!) in front of its members — of which about 30-40 were in attendance for the event.  An article in The Hill (a local DC news outlet) over the weekend talked about the Fly-In, but was misinterpreted by many as saying that SFATA and the e-cig industry was looking to avoid regulation entirely (it’s not).  On Monday, the Committee on Energy and Commerce publicly patted itself on the back for sending a letter to the FDA warning that e-cig companies were targeting kids with marketing and advertising campaigns similar to previous tobacco efforts.  And, no matter what, many individuals still view electronic cigarettes, nicotine, smoking, Big Tobacco, cigarettes, and even lung cancer as an amorphous, synonymous blob.

I was privileged enough to sit in on 3 meetings and I heard about goings on in a great many more.  Generally, the response was positive.  Even the most die hard anti-electronic cigarette candidates and staffers smiled, shook hands, and laid the groundwork for future compromise.

That many visiting SFATA members had never before found an issue important enough for them to hike all the way to D.C. and talk to a representative went a long way.  These were not owners of massive businesses (some larger than others) talking to reps through lawyer-speak and encoded offers of campaign support or lobbying.  These were owners often of 10-50 person operations asking for little more than patience while the science catches up to the product.

One staffer put it really well, but in the absence of a direct quote, I’ll paraphrase — we spend a lot of resources trying to be first when we should spend them trying to be right — and that’s what these business owners were asking.  Take a breath, look at the research, the industry, the people, and create the right regulatory structure rather than shoving the industry under an umbrella that clashes with its suit just so you can say “Well, at least it’s out of the rain.”  That might not be the best metaphor, but it was a long event.

But to get back to the overall response, it was mostly a positive one.  One very hostile staffer said her representative (again, paraphrasing) wasn’t willing to manipulate legislation just so someone can get a big paycheck.  Aside from that one instance though, meetings were very productive.  Some staffers even had friends and family manage to transition from smoking to electronic cigarettes.  Nothing could beat that as a springboard for meaningful conversation.  The products, they speak for themselves.

For the members, this was more than just a visit to a city to speak with someone about their company.  It was an opportunity to participate in national politics, no matter the size or significance of their role.  No matter how much you might start to feel like Congress, politicians, and the government don’t care about you, the individual you, there is a bug that gets under your skin when you realize your voice can be heard.  There’s certainly red tape, barriers, complexities, and complications involved, but they can be overcome.

Because this is a rare piece in which I can speak as a true participant in the story and an advocate for the industry, I would like to thank all involved for taking the discussions in D.C. to a new level.  As much as these events are by the industry and for the industry, community support is vital. Neither side can exist in a vacuum.  While SFATA is arguing for industry, economy, and jobs, community and consumer groups like CASAA provide the kind of grassroots momentum you just can’t buy.  For the same reason, community support for industry events is as valuable as industry support for community events.

My deepest thanks to all involved, and Godspeed.




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