Tuesday, 18 October 2016
Thanks to the nocturnal antics of the opposition, I have unfettered access to the entire House for this graveyard shift. I might as well use the five minutes available before the House concludes to update members, and particularly those interested in health outcomes, on advances in alternatives to smoking. Most of you will know that many in this parliament have worked very hard in the campaign against smoking and are very proud that Australia has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world, beaten only by potentially Singapore, a number of smaller US states and some northern European economies.
The headline figure for smoking is 18 per cent; 13 per cent of Australians are daily smokers. This is a great victory for public health. The cost, as I have pointed out before, I think, in previous speeches, is that 15,000 Australians lose their lives to smoking. The cost of smoking in just 18 months is the equivalent of current estimates for the cost of constructing the NBN. We know that those most affected are those from lower socioeconomic groups, who have the least money to spend on this habit. We know that older smokers are the least price sensitive, meaning they are least likely to give it up as a result of increases in taxation. Younger Australians are still experimenting in significant numbers: 15 to 24 is the highest demographic for smoking.
A very important discussion that most wealthy economies are having right now is on the role of alternative and tobacco substitutes, including e-smoking and tobacco-heating products that give the same dose of nicotine. Currently, as a schedule 7 poison—as it is otherwise known on the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Medicines and Poisons—any nicotine product is not able to be purchased without a prescription. The argument that the UK, Canada and New Zealand are having this year in the face of contemporary evidence is that we should contemplate changing that, certainly for nicotine solutions less than 3.6 per cent. The paradox here is that strong nicotine products like tobacco are legal, and low concentrations of nicotine, such that used in e-cigarettes, is actually illegal. What we are talking about here is delivering an alternative to tobacco. Nicotine is addictive but it has almost no health impacts, apart from, with overdose, nausea and vomiting. The bigger work here is about behaviour. So, with the introduction of e-cigarettes, some very important points for public health to ask would be whether the vast majority of e-cigarette use is by smokers who are trying to shake the habit. Also, does it risk being an attractive product to those who have never smoked before? It would be a massive concern were that the case.
Expert reviews have assessed the risk of harm from e-cigarettes as being no more than five per cent of equivalent smoking activity. Nicotine toxicity is around 10 per cent of a similar smoking activity. We know that, overseas, young people from are not trying e-cigarettes in significant numbers. There is no credible risk for people in the vicinity inhaling vapour from e-cigarettes. Also, of course, low concentrations of nicotine for harm reduction has already helped many smokers to quit the habit. So we should be looking at this more closely in Australia.
We know from research here that about 45 per cent of Queenslanders have tried an e-cigarette—that is a very high figure; 64 per cent of Queenslanders are aware that e-cigarettes are tobacco free, meaning that you are not subjected to the cancer-causing effect of tobacco; 62 per cent of smokers would cut down, if given the chance to use e-cigarettes; and 70 per cent of Queenslanders would like to see at least a trial of legalisation of e-cigarettes because of the potential benefits. We do not always want to rely on international evidence. For those who do not know an e-cigarette, you basically pop a battery-powered heating element against a refillable tank or a replaceable cartridge that is filled with a nicotine solution that vaporises. There is some concern that with the nicotine comes polypropylene glycol, glycerin, water and flavourings. There are about 4½ thousand flavouring alternatives. So there are questions that we should be asking here in Australia. We need to look at the patterns or trends of use in places like the UK, where the evidence is gold-plated. We need to look at the current market and see that in the UK it is the fastest growing supermarket segment in the country. We also need to be aware that there are perceptions of harm around the use of e-cigarettes, noting that already some UK hospitals have lifted the ban on vaping on hospital grounds. We are worried about whether it is an effective smoking tool, and these things should be investigated in this country.