Editorial: Gathering the 'Tobacco Nerds'

Why industry events like last week’s roundtable matter

Melissa Vonder Haar, Freelance Writer

Tobacco Roundtable

Attendees mingle during the Tobacco Category Review Meeting

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill. -- I will never forget Anne Flint’s response to why she was attending last year’s CSP-hosted Tobacco Category Review Meeting: the senior category manager of tobacco for the Framingham, Mass.-based Cumberland Farms quipped she was “excited to gather with my fellow tobacco nerds – my counterparts don’t always get the world we’re dealing with.”
Now I recognize that as a reporter merely covering the segment, I may not quite qualify as a full-fledged “tobacco nerd” – at least not in the same way as those of you who eat, sleep and breathe back bar plan-o-grams, complicated contracts and the information overload from  the constantly evolving e-vapor segment. 
But having been on the tobacco beat for three years now, I like to think I can at least sympathize.
The truth is, tobacco is truly in a different realm than most—if not all—the traditional c-store categories. Can you think of another category that when someone asks to remain off the record, it’s not out of PR concerns or worries over giving away trade secrets to the competition – but the knowledge that various regulatory agencies are watching their every move? 
Because that’s the reality of what we’re dealing with. I can say it was more than a little surreal meeting a representative from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last year and got the response of “oh, I know you – I monitor your articles!” 
It’s hard to imagine that happening to someone covering salty snacks.
Which is part of the reason industry events like last week’s Category Review Meeting are so valuable: a place where those of you who call whacky, volatile world of tobacco home can discuss the challenges, opportunities and realities of this category; a place where some much-needed venting can take place; and a place where you can trust that any sentiments expressed will remain between “friends” (at least so long as you preface it with “off the record”).
That value increases even more as the vaping segment moves from trend to potential power-player. As Don Burke pointed out, there’s a lot being said about this segment – but very little data to back it up. It makes us all a little more reliant on that shared experience to understand what’s really going on in the market. 
As one retailer commented, “I thought I’d missed the boat on vaping. Now I think I may want to wait a little longer.” 
I’m sure this was not the sole retailer coming into the meeting fearing they were missing out, only to realize that most retailers are only just now exploring the segment—and few really have a grasp on it. 
It’s just one of hundreds of examples of the frank and honest discussion that goes on at these “intimate” tobacco affairs. And, as valuable as insights shared by speakers like NATO executive director Thomas Briant and MSA’s senior vice president Don Burke are, it’s the opportunity to connect with our other “tobacco nerds” that I think really stands out. 
And, for the record, I’m honored to be a part of it.