Opposition to making less harmful products available to smokers to encourage them to quit came under scrutiny in Sydney at the (federal) Senate Inquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts.
The inquiry is looking at numerous aspects of what critics are calling the “nanny state” and intrusion into consumers’ lives of possibly unnecessarily restrictive regulations of – among other issues – bicycle helmet laws, alcohol sales and computer games. This time the spotlight was on how to deal with e-cigarettes – as a potential public health boon or bane.
The committee’s chairman is Senator David Leyonhjelm, a long-time campaigner for the rights of individual consumers to take responsibility for their own actions. In addition to a mass of written submissions, he heard testimony from numerous witnesses in Sydney.
Almost every witness provided essentially the same story: Australia has a huge opportunity to join the UK in regarding (properly regulated) e-cigarette use to adult smokers as a uniquely effective means of smoking cessation and states should abandon their obstructive and often conflicting attempts to limit e-cigarette use and availability.
Professor Gerry Stimson, via telecast from the UK, commented on Australia’s “illiberal policy” on vaping in stark contrast to its previous pioneering stance on other important public health issues such as HIV. On the same broadcast, former ASH head Clive Bates said: “There is no justification for protecting the existing, more dangerous products [smoking] while preventing availability of less harmful alternatives.”
Stimson also advocated allowing advertising of properly-regulated e-cigarettes. “If there is something safer, tell people about it.”
Bates explained that “at least 95 percent safer” did not equate to 5 percent dangerous, and strongly recommended that Australia should NOT regulate as in the US (ie treating vaping like smoking) or as in the EU, but develop standards such as food-grade ingredients and regulate “to promote consumer confidence and get rid of rogue operators.”
Speaking for the New Nicotine Alliance, Dr Attila Danko told the inquiry that if a tobacco company stops selling sticks and becomes a reduced-risk producer, it should no longer be regarded as a pariah. “Look at e-cigarettes as an opportunity rather than a threat …they could be a public bonanza.”
Dr Alex Wodak OA – a highly respected expert in all fields of addiction and treatment – called the regulation of e-cigarettes in Australia “far too repressive and heavy-handed.” It favours tobacco, “which is crazy”, and the argument comes down to “whether we have a jihad about a particular drug [nicotine]”. Public health people don’t approve of e-cigarettes “because they believe they will re-normalise smoking. But they don’t have any evidence.”
Terry Barnes, a highly experienced policy-maker, told the committee he considered the entry of tobacco manufacturers into the e-cig market a “defensive move”. He said there could be a downside in terms of how rapidly they might be able to innovate new products (outstripping smaller competitors), but that there was no problem about tobacco manufacturers becoming interested in turning into nicotine product makers instead and that they “should be given every incentive to move into safer nicotine products.”
Witnesses from the ‘Big Tobacco’ side called the current legal climate in Australia “perverse” and for an effective regulatory regime nationwide “to ensure any risks to the wider community are minimised”, and recommended making changes at federal level to §7 of the Poisons Act (ie to declassify nicotine) and the TGA.
Senator Leyonhjelm – who later commented that the e-cigarette issue was the easiest of all the personal-choice issues being examined by the inquiry as the arguments were so clear-cut – asked if it was in the interests of the tobacco manufacturer for consumers to continue to use the more dangerous product [ie sticks], and if a TM could ever become wholly an e-cigarette maker instead. One witness commented that “consumers should be the ones to make the choice, and the market will be the arbiter of innovation.”
The chairman reserved his most difficult questioning for Dr Anthony Carpenter of the Royal Australian College of Physicians.
In its written submission, RACP had claimed: “Many people, including children, have limited capacity to make informed healthy choices.” Senator Leyonhjelm asked Dr Carpenter: “Can someone make superior choices than you about your health?” Dr Carpenter failed to answer.
He was then asked: “why have public health and government in the UK and Australia come to completely different conclusions?” about the desirability of making e-cigarettes available and their effectiveness as a smoking cessation tool – despite both services drawing on the same seminal Nuffield report from 2007.
Dr Carpenter said he “could not comment further pending the drafting of the RACP’s position on vaping.”
On his submission’s assertion that “individuals are not on a level playing field with industries that invest enormous amounts of time and money towards making unhealthy choices easier and more tempting,” Dr Carpenter was repeatedly asked by the chairman to name any industry but failed to do so.
On 25 June 2015, the Senate referred an inquiry into personal choice and community impacts to the (federal) Senate Economics References Committee for inquiry and report by 13 June 2016. That report date is now in doubt as a federal election is likely to be called for around July 2.