Conspiracy – expert cries ‘foul’ over TGA verdict

A prominent critic of Australia’s refusal to accept the harm-reduction arguments in favour of allowing smokers to switch to new nicotine products has accused the Therapeutic goods Administration of mounting a “conspiracy” to bury the evidence.

Terry Barnes 1 says the TGA had no intention of bringing an open mind to the consultation process and has wilfully refused to take due account of scientific evidence from a stream of highly-respected and internationally-reputed experts. TGA has also been censoring experts’ contributions to the debate.

Barnes is a policy consultant, a former senior Howard government adviser and senior adviser to former PM Tony Abbott when the latter was health minister. In a guest column on The Cattalaxy Files 2 he questioned the TGA’s motivation behind its rejection of a measured, evidence-based application from the pro-vaping New Nicotine Alliance to amend the Poisons Schedule to allow nicotine to be legally available in vaping solutions, and give smokers access – as in developed countries – to far safer alternatives to the “toxic contents of cigarette vapour”, while cigarettes themselves remain freely available.

Barnes said the verdict (to maintain a ban on sale of nicotine for vaping) was “consistent with the standard orthodoxy of the more prominent public health and harm reduction advocates in Australia, especially the hackneyed claims that not enough is known about the nature and long-term effects of e-cigarettes and vaping on users and bystanders; the concern about “renormalisation” of smoking behaviours; and the claimed ‘gateway effect’ of vaping take-up by young people leading to deadly tobacco smoking.

“The quality of the evidence supporting these bog-standard claims was not questioned by the TGA, nor does it seem the steadily-increasing weight of evidence against them, including a comprehensive submission signed but a staggering 40 Australian and international scientific and clinical experts, was even taken seriously by the TGA advisory committee, or by the decision-makers.”

Barnes turned a spotlight on a related topic causing outrage among harm-reduction experts in Austalia and in more enlightened countries: the TGA’s possibly illegal habit of censoring submissions to the public consultation process around the issue.

After calling for public and expert comment on the original proposal by NNA, TGA “redacted” – in some cases extremely heavily – the submissions before posting them on its official website although authors had indicated they were for public view.

Submissions were “so heavily redacted that they were meaningless. Many submitters, including the 40 authors of that major expert submission, and me, agreed in writing that our submissions could be published in full,” said Barnes.

“Yet, reprehensibly, they were published with not only our names blocked out, but with big chunks of our arguments, and especially any references to specific studies and other evidence cited in the body of submissions, redacted to the point of the documents being unrecognisable, even to the authors.”

The TGA is repeating the censorship exercise with follow-up comments on its (interim) verdict, the deadline for which was 16 February. For the record, Barnes’ comment is available in full here; the comments are here (uncensored, of course).

1 part-time fellow of a UK think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, with a focus on the effects of Australian harm reduction policies in public health, including tobacco control. A policy consultant, former senior Howard government adviser and a regular columnist for ABC’s The Drum, he worked as senior adviser to former PM Tony Abbott when the latter was health minister. More recently, he worked on contract with the new Baillieu state government in Victoria, as an interim ministerial chief of staff for two ministers and covering five portfolios: community services; mental health; women’s affairs; housing and children and early childhood development.
2 a leading libertarian and centre-right blog

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