The Smoke-Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA) launched last month and will be hitting the political runway hard come January. We now know who its executive director is and it isn’t anyone with a history in the electronic cigarette industry. Chris Venis has taken the role and you’ll likely hear his name again.
Venis actually found the position while job hunting online. His acquaintance with electronic cigarettes was minimal beforehand, but he comes with 20 years experience working in various political operations. To this position, an understanding of the inner workings of advocacy and administration in the political theater is far more important than a deep understanding of a still infantile industry.
Venis got his start in politics in the early 90s working for New Jersey Representative Bob Franks. By 2000, Venis had maneuvered his way into a vice president position with a public affairs consultancy and was perpetually involved in a variety of political wranglings. Around the same time, Venis was deputy mayor of Hillsborough, NJ where his family has lived for decades operating a large restaurant, bar, and liquor store.
“I probably never worked so hard in my life,” says Venis. In 2000, Venis even worked as a regional campaign manager for Steve Forbes’s bid to become president.
In 2001, Governor Donald DiFrancesco asked Venis to become chief of staff for the New Jersey Department of Corrections. Venis operated mainly as an administrator, coordinating with various departments, labor unions, and enforcement officials. According to Venis, working within local- and state-level government gave him a deeper understanding of how to build relationships, represent the community, and form agreements between disparate groups.
In 2002, Venis started his own public affairs company called The Venis Group. A couple years later, he got involved in the passage of the Dominican Republic – Central America Free Trade Agreement and several other free trade agreements. Venis got a master’s degree in political science–focused primarily on international affairs. Free trade was something he found himself interested in and excited to be a part of some twenty years after college. “It was very humbling,” says Venis. “It was an opportunity to meet with international ambassadors and really affect public policy.”
More than likely, his work in free trade will serve well for SFATA. The FDA’s attempts to essentially ban electronic cigarettes or regulate them into obscurity won’t fly so easily in the face of someone so acquainted with political and commercial legalese.
Venis seems more than equipped for the job. The world surrounding electronic cigarettes is not a purely rational one however. As helpful as all this experience is, one must understand the emotional perspective that drives people on both sides of the e-cig debate. Venis does.
Sixteen years ago, Venis’s mother passed away due to smoking related illness. He admits that before taking the job, he had to take time to seriously consider the facts about electronic cigarettes and whether they really were the opportunity they’re purported to be. He decided they were.
Venis’s appointment to helm SFATA appears to be one of the first major steps toward maturity for the electronic cigarette industry. New industries and communities often begin in the hands of less politically savvy individuals. They can be prone to writing off their political opponents as unintelligent, close-minded, or corrupt. Meeting opponents at the negotiation table and making meaningful change requires an even temper, a level head, and an understanding of why your opponents act they way they do. Bringing individuals into the industry with more experience will only help the industry grow.
Smoking has profoundly damaged the health of our national population. The best future leaders in the electronic cigarette world will most likely possess an understanding of the national, individual, rational, and emotional implications of smoking and smoking addiction.