Thursday, 25 February 2021
I inform the chamber that Senators Siewert, Sheldon and Urquhart will also sponsor the motion. I, and also on behalf of Senators Siewert, Sheldon and Urquhart, move:
That the Senate—
a. notes that the tobacco industry has a vested interest in promoting e-cigarettes;
b. further notes reports in the Weekend Australian Financial Review that the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) under former CEO Russell Zimmerman received funding from big tobacco to lobby to legalise e-cigarettes and formed the Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association (ARVIA) in September 2019;
c. welcomes the decision under the ARA's new CEO Paul Zahra to close down ARVIA and walk away from its contract to lobby for e-cigarettes because the money was channelled from Philip Morris International;
d. notes that the recent Senate 'Tobacco Harm Reduction' inquiry asked witnesses to state whether they had ever received tobacco industry funding, and some groups – such as the Brisbane-based National Retail Association – provided submissions advocating the benefits of e-cigarettes but declined invitations to give evidence; and
e. supports the findings of the Senate inquiry's majority report that Australia has taken a sensible approach to vaping and 'the absence of conclusive clinical evidence as to both the health effects of e-cigarettes and the efficacy of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool supports the conclusion that there is no case to weaken Australia's precautionary approach to the regulation of liquid nicotine'.
It was absolutely great to read in the AFR Weekend that Australia's premier retail association parted ways with big tobacco. That association, the Australian Retailers Association, ended its contract to promote vaping once it learned that money was being funnelled from a major tobacco company. It is, of course, disappointing that the ARA even accepted that contract in the first place. With association groups sometimes the lure of new funds overrides good practice, but better late than never. The current CEO and board must be congratulated for very much taking the right stand.
The AFR Weekend story was a reminder of the tactics employed by big tobacco. Big tobacco are not the ones standing front and centre in the vaping debate. Instead, they work in the background, puppetmasters pulling their puppet strings. They want us to believe that vaping cuts at the very core of their business model. Even some in this place want us to think that anyone who opposes vaping is doing the devil's work. Because e-cigarettes are a threat to big tobacco. Well, this strawman argument conveniently ignores that Australia has been steadily driving down smoking rates for over 30 years, all without widespread vaping.
In reality, e-cigarettes are a robust replacement arm of big tobacco's business model. Big tobacco doesn't care how many people start on a path to nicotine addiction as long as they become addicted to nicotine. As we saw with the AFR Weekend story, industry players, such as Philip Morris International, are actively working behind the scenes to try and weaken Australia's regulatory approach to e-cigarettes. The industry has sought to buy legitimacy for its arguments by getting employer and other industry groups to be its mouth piece and to do its dirty work. It wants e-cigarettes to be treated as consumer products, as easy as buying a can of beer or a can of coke. This odious industry wants to renormalise smoking after Australia worked so hard to drive down smoking rates over the past three decades. It absolutely hates that vaping is so heavily regulated. It really hates that nicotine e-cigarettes are prescription only. We all have to be on guard against these tactics. Indeed, it is actually Australia's obligation under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control 'to be alert to any efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts'.
As members of this place will be aware, the Senate last year held and inquiry into e-cigarettes under the euphemistic title of tobacco harm reduction. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to call it the inquiry on promoting nicotine addiction. I know Senators Hughes and Canavan were patting themselves on their backs for getting the Senate inquiry up. I know the industry would also have been patting itself on the back because another inquiry, so hot on the heels of the 2018 inquiry in the other place, is another opportunity to put forward its self-serving arguments and try to advance its agenda.
I think it's pretty clear that the purpose of putting up the Senate inquiry was not to objectively assess the evidence and regulatory frameworks, as the terms of reference stated. The purpose was to argue for the liberalisation of e-cigarettes in Australia. I wasn't going to let that go unchallenged, so I participated in the inquiry. I have to say, I recall the newly appointed chair of that inquiry coming up to me soon after and stating, 'Congratulations on getting yourself on an inquiry you don't believe in.' That comment portrayed to me the true motivation of the inquiry and the lack of objectivity. This was demonstrated in the content of what became the dissenting minority report. During the course of the inquiry, my office received correspondence from the National Retail Association, the organisation which the AFR suggests has now taken up where the ARA left off. The NRA's letter was accompanied by a survey purporting to be about the health of South Australian retail workers, even though it hadn't actually surveyed retail workers. It has surveyed a small number of SA residents, some of whom had worked in retail at some time. It was a pretty obvious attempt to push the vaping barrow. In amongst the meandering statistics about fruit and veg intake, crime in retail and awareness of smoking rates, it was all for a call to look at legalising vaping products. It was a very poorly disguised attempt to push the vaping barrow.
I have held concerns for some time about the charity status of the pro vaping Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association, otherwise known as ATHRA. It has a tax deductibility status and—rather incredibly, I think—is registered as a health promotion charity. However, it almost exclusively only pedals advice and information about vaping and e-cigarettes, rather than TGA-approved cessation methods. However, of most concern is that ATHRA reportedly received start-up funds from vape manufacturers in 2018 and also accepted donations from overseas groups, which themselves had received funds from big tobacco. ATHRA is one of the groups that clings to a flaky statistic that you often hear in these debates—that is, the claim that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking. The thing to understand about that statistic is that it is pretty much made up. If I'm being generous, you could call it a best guess. The figure comes from a 2014 study by a group of researchers across a very wide range of disciplines, which estimated the harm of tobacco cigarettes across a range of indicators, including economic cost, crime, injury and environmental damage. This is the figure they came up with. It was repeated even in government publications in the UK, often without reference to the original source. Vaping proponents cling to it like a life raft but it is misleading to use that stat to describe a health benefit because that is not how it was calculated. Even that study said of e-cigarettes:
There is concern that these devices should not be introduced in an unregulated way until potential associated harms are adequately evaluated.
What is important to understand is that vaping may be less deadly than tobacco but that does not make it safe; that does not make it healthy. Whilst some in this place would have us believe that e-cigarettes serve the greater good because they're not as evil as tobacco, the inquiry was presented with compelling evidence to the contrary. The inquiry heard the safety of e-cigarettes, particularly the long-term safety, has not been established. Neither has their effectiveness as a cessation tool.
The Cancer Council and the National Heart Foundation warned that e-cigarettes pose significant health harms and risks to the Australian population. Vapers breathe in ultrafine particles, volatile organic compounds, heavy metals and other toxic substances that should not be inhaled, including formaldehyde. This risk extends to the nicotine-flavoured liquids marketed at young people because the ingredients used are designed to be ingested, not heated to vapour and inhaled. Because e-cigarettes are a relatively new product, there is little research about the health effects beyond two years. There's concern that vaping can be a gateway to tobacco use in never smokers. ANU research showed e-cigarette users who never smoked were on average three times more likely to try smoking conventional cigarettes and to transition to regular tobacco smoking.
As a nation we would be plain stupid to open the gates to nicotine vaping and make it freely available. Two wrongs don't make a right, and giving e-cigarettes free rein to counter the ill effects of tobacco is the health equivalent of introducing cane toads to deal with cane beetles, and we know how that ended up. It will be short-sighted and may have undesirable long-term consequences. As Professor Simon Chapman told the inquiry:
We had no idea for 40 or 50 years after cigarette smoking became widespread that lung cancer would move from being a rare disease to becoming the No. 1 cause of cancer death.
We can't be complacent or take lightly the long-term risks posed by vaping.
I am pleased that the inquiry majority report supported Australia's cautionary approach on vaping regulation. While other countries with more liberal laws lament the escalating rates of youth vaping—indeed, in the US the Surgeon General has called it an epidemic—Australia is able to take a measured and evidence based approach. Australia has its eyes wide open. In the face of uncertain evidence, it has struck the right balance. Vaping is restricted and nicotine liquid is available on prescription if smokers feel it will help them quit. In doing this, they will have some medical supervision, which may actually assist their attempts to quit. As the Australian Medical Association told the committee:
It is not a success to turn a smoker into an e-cigarette user; the success is turning the smoker into a nonsmoker, and a lifelong nonsmoker.
Vaping may have helped Senator Hughes and others to quit smoking, but without doubt they're in the minority. The stone-cold fact is that the vast majority of smokers who quit successfully go cold turkey. Australia's approach will help to reduce the risk that we get people hooked on vaping and that the next generation of smokers start as a generation of vapers.