Promoting science-based, solution-oriented communication on vaping and youth

In anticipation of her presentation at the upcoming ENDS US 2019, taking place December 10-11, in Arlington, Virginia, we reached out to Health Behavior Consultant, Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D., to discuss some of the biggest challenges for those working to change the public narrative surrounding vaping & e-cigarettes, reframing communication on vaping and youth, and the most important steps that the ENDS industry needs to take to support continued growth in the years to come.


Why have you decided to support this event?

The ENDS conference seems to bring together people with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives in a setting where real conversations can happen. If we value harm reduction, it's essential that we step outside our comfort zones and talk to people who may challenge our assumptions. 

Can you briefly tell us about your background in the industry, and your work in the public health sector?

My public health career began several decades ago when I earned my MPH at the University of Minnesota and started my first company, Health & Science Communications, to educate the public about emotionally sensitive and complex issues. Seeking ways to make a bigger difference, I returned for a doctorate in health and social behavior at the Harvard School of Public Health. My ENDS bio details some of my tobacco work (e.g., PMUSA’s QuitAssist project) but I’ve done everything from public radio stories on diabetes, to video news releases promoting public understanding of science, to international media outreach on how video games affect teen behavior. I love combining qualitative and quantitative research to understand how people think and feel, and potential paths to change. 

What do you hope to see change in the ENDS market over the next year?

I hope to see more science-based, solution-oriented discussions on vaping and youth. Recent media coverage of vaping echoed my experience a decade ago with video game violence research, when sensible concerns about a new youth-attracting technology were hyped into a moral panic about school shootings. 

What are some of the biggest challenges for those working to change the public narrative surround vaping & e-cigarettes?

One big challenge is moving from knee-jerk slogans to asking questions and gathering information (especially qualitative data, i.e., systematically listening to people). Shouting “it’s Big Tobacco 2.0!” may feel good to some, but it doesn’t guide anyone towards safer behavior or make them smarter. We also need smarter outreach to journalists, explaining the science in ways that click for non-scientists. 

What do you want people to take away from your presentation during the conference?

To understand how emotions and what we might call tribal identification matter as much as data when you’re trying to change someone’s mind. Reviewing TPSAC meeting transcripts, and talking to public health colleagues about vaping, I was really struck by how the way you approach a topic, and even key phrases you use, can affect whether someone truly listens to you—whether their mind opens to let some light in, or snaps closed and labels you as the opposition.

What do you view as the single most important step this industry needs to take to continue growing in the years to come?

I think the industry image needs to become a little bit boring. Those predictable photos of tattooed or black-fingernailed vape-cloud blowers need to be replaced in the public mind with Uncle Jerry or Grandma Ann, who no longer reeks of cigarettes when we kiss at Thanksgiving.


Hear more from Cheryl during her presentation, "Communicating with Public Health Associations: avoiding pitfalls and finding ways to speak credibly", scheduled to take place on Day 2 of this year's conference, Wednesday, December 11, 2019.

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