Nicotine e-cigarettes ban to remain, despite protests from Liberal MPs
The sale of electronic cigarettes containing nicotine – classified as a poison – should remain prohibited in Australia, a parliamentary committee has concluded after a year-long inquiry.
In its much anticipated report, the majority of the Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport supported the status quo, saying “current regulatory arrangements for nicotine e-cigarettes remain appropriate” and “further research into the health impacts is needed”.
But the committee, which has a long history of delivering consensus reports, mostly split along party lines, with three Liberal members, including chairman Trent Zimmerman, submitting two dissenting reports, saying smokers struggling to quit should be able to legally use nicotine e-cigarettes as a quitting aid.
“Life is short and shorter for smokers. Just legalise vaping,” wrote Liberal MP Andrew Laming in an extremely pithy, 10-word dissenting report.
At present, it is legal to buy “vaping” devices, but generally unlawful to sell, possess or use ones containing nicotine because the highly addictive chemical is a Schedule 7 poison.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) last year rejected an application to exempt the drug from the dangerous poisons list.
But many users, who call themselves “vapers”, say the alternative nicotine delivery system has saved their lives and they are fighting for change.
Plans for the future
The report made five recommendations: that research be reviewed every two years; that an international meeting of health experts be convened; that a national approach be taken to the regulation of non-nicotine e-cigarettes; that the TGA continues to oversee the classification of nicotine; and that the government examine colourings and flavourings.
With 2.4 million daily smokers, it acknowledged more needed to be done. One per cent of the population used e-cigarettes and 30 per cent had tried it at least once – much lower rates than in Britain where it’s legally available.
It said public health groups and state governments generally agreed there was a lack of evidence that e-cigarettes were an effective smoking cessation tool and suggested more research was required.
The committee remained conflicted on whether e-cigarettes was a “gateway” to smoking for young people – acknowledging concerns that a young person could become addicted to nicotine and then take up smoking, but also that smoking rates in Britain and the US were declining.
It acknowledged heavy metals and carcinogens found in e-liquids could harm the lungs, but said the health impacts were unclear and the potential risks of vaping needed to be weighed against the known impacts of smoking.
“Some of the long-term health impacts of nicotine e-cigarettes may not be known for a decade or more but their impact on smoking rates should become clear much sooner,” the report said.
“If e-cigarettes can be shown to reduce the number of smokers, then the potential benefits this may bring could strengthen the case for the legalisation of e-cigarettes.”
War of words
Cancer Council Australia and the Heart Foundation commended the committee for upholding the integrity of the TGA and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) instead of caving into lobbyists.
“Once we start circumventing [the TGA and NHMRC] and deferring to lobbyists, whether from industry, ideologues or individual advocates, cracks will appear in the system,” Cancer Council’s Paul Grogan said.
But Australian Vaping Advocacy Trade and Research (AVATAR) said the recommendations were tantamount to “denying a life raft” to smokers wanting to quit.
“Australia is set to fall further behind the rest of the world as the government fails to acknowledge the vital role that e-cigarettes can offer in creating a healthier society,” said its chairman Savvas Dimitriou.
AVATAR received support from e-cigarette advocate Associate Professor Colin Mendelsohn, from the University of New South Wales, who accused the committee of cherry-picking evidence.
“Vaping is not entirely risk-free but is far less harmful than smoking to users and bystanders,” he said.
“This is not surprising as almost all the harm from smoking is from the tar, carbon monoxide and other chemicals from burning tobacco.”
But public health expert Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman from Sydney University said e-cigarettes could be a “benign or an evil genie”, and “genies [were] notoriously difficult to put back in the bottle”.
“This is why sane public health policy should treat e-cigarettes with utmost regulatory caution,” he said.
“All but failed states do this routinely with new pharmaceuticals: strict regulation at first, followed – if warranted by relaxed regulation down the track.”
Professor Mike Daube from Curtin University said the next step was to re-focus on tobacco reduction programs, “especially mass media campaigns and regulations that stop underhanded tobacco industry product promotion”.
Public Health Association of Australia said it supported all five recommendations, saying common sense had prevailed.
“Now we can get on with the evidence-based measures that we know will reduce smoking,” its CEO Michael Moore said.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) said there was a lack of evidence to show e-cigarettes was an effective cessation aid and to disprove that e-cigarettes led young people to take up smoking.
“We strongly support the assessment and research work of the TGA and the NHMRC,” AMA president Michael Gannon said.
Big tobacco speaks
As Labor MP Steve Georganas helped deliver the report to the House of Representatives, he remarked it was “appalling” that tobacco companies – who have heavily invested in e-cigarettes – were given the opportunity to influence policy.
“This alarmed some of the committee members and experts … and should alarm the government,” he said.
British American Tobacco told Fairfax Media that many politicians had been influenced by misinformation and had a propensity for overly cautious and punitive regulation.
“The Canadian and New Zealand governments have both recently acknowledged that public health evidence and international policy overwhelmingly favours making e-cigarettes available to smokers,” it said.
Philip Morris said smokers should be given access to better alternatives to smoking as soon as possible.
“[We] look forward to an independent and comprehensive review in Australia of the evidence relating to the health impacts of e-cigarettes as recommended by the committee,” its managing director Tammy Chan said.