Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021



4:10 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Labor accepts the advice and evidence of Australian and international experts when it comes to the matter of health. This is why Labor supports maintaining the precautionary approach adopted by the TGA and the health department in the regulation of e-cigarettes.

The TGA is best placed to assess and advise the Australian government on claims of the relative harm of e-cigarettes, and their risks and efficacy as a method of smoking cessation. Informed by this evidence, the TGA is promoting a prescription model that would strike an appropriate balance, preventing broad, unregulated access amongst young people and, by placing access within a medical context, improving the likelihood of a cessation effect.

The majority report of the Senate inquiry into tobacco harm reduction as outlined in the motion makes this important point:

… 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.

There is also another matter the Senate must consider when it comes to the regulation of e-cigarettes: the influence of the tobacco industry. We saw it portrayed just then. When I signed on to be the deputy chair of the Senate Select Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction's inquiry, people warned me of the insidious nature of the tobacco industry lobby; that these are companies that have profited from the death and disease of its customers over the better part of the last century; and that they sat on research that demonstrated a link between their product and cancer for years before it became clear to the rest of the world. Well, Labor doesn't take money from them.

There is no doubt in my mind that the interests of the tobacco companies can never be reconciled with the public interest. So perverse are their business models and their intentions that politicians must always be alert to their efforts to ease restrictions on tobacco and nicotine. This is why Australia is a signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Article 5.3 requires us, as politicians, to protect our politics regarding health care and tobacco control from 'commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry'. It was for this reason I asked a significant number of the witnesses who appeared before the inquiry to declare any relationship or support they had received from companies engaged in the tobacco industry.

I, along with many of the committee, had our suspicions that this inquiry was a political vehicle for the vested interests of the tobacco industry to push their agenda, not a health agenda. Reporting in the AustralianFinancial Review over the weekend revealed that these suspicions may have been well founded. Over the weekend it was revealed that Philip Morris had been funnelling hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts via the PR firm Burson, Cohn & Wolfe, BCW, to the Australian Retailers Association to lobby the government to legalise e-cigarettes. The product of this contract was to set up the Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association, alongside the group Legalise Vaping Australia—a shady front to push the argument that the legislation and commercialisation of e-cigarettes will cause smoking rates to fall. This motion is not a debate on the science of these cigarettes. The tobacco harm reduction inquiry has made, published and tabled its report on that issue. I, like many senators, believe that the health professionals, not politicians, should set policy in this respect. In this case, the Therapeutic Goods Administration remains the most appropriate regulator of our policy on e-cigarettes.

As I have repeatedly said, I deeply value and appreciate the personal testimony to our committee received from smokers, ex-smokers, e-cigarette users and other individuals. It was clear to me that a large number of e-cigarette users were people seeking to make positive improvements in their lives and health by quitting smoking. We applaud them for taking the action to quit. But those who advocate, on genuine grounds, the merits of e-cigarettes as a means of smoking cessation have been done a disservice by the covert efforts of the tobacco companies, industry bodies and their associated politicians, who push a message funded by companies whose interests are never in the public interest. Most importantly it completely contradicts the line that legalising e-cigarettes will destroy the business model of tobacco companies. That the tobacco companies want to see the broad commercialisation of e-cigarettes should be evident from the submissions they put into the inquiry alone. The submissions reveal that British American Tobacco has invested over $4 billion into the development, manufacture and commercialisation of e-cigarette products since 2013. There is nothing small about $4 billion in investment. Of course, British American Tobacco would be pushing for an easing of restrictions on e-cigarettes. They have more than $4 billion invested to get back.

Having seen the success of the global tobacco control measures reduce the rates of smoking to historic levels, the tobacco companies are facing an existential crisis. In the rise of e-cigarettes they see a solution to their crisis. E-cigarettes are not a threat to their business. They consider them the future of their business. They have co-opted the smoking cessation and harm reduction narratives as arguments for another generation of nicotine dependence and the profits that go along with it. This is clear from the smoke-free world language that is prominent in the submission to the inquiry from Philip Morris. Disturbingly, similar rhetoric is parroted in a minority report by Senator Hughes and Senator Canavan.

Rightly, the ARA cancelled their contract with BCW in August last year and shut down ARVIA, leaving the tobacco industry in need of new surrogates to campaign on their behalf. As Neil Chenoweth points out in The Australian Financial Review, just a matter of days after the Retailers Association cancelled this contract, the smaller National Retail Association began aggressively campaigning against our existing laws on e-cigarettes. This begs questions that should be answered: Has the National Retail Association been in receipt of a contract from Burson, Cohn & Wolfe relating to their work at Philip Morris? Are they there now carrying out the work that the ARA has decided to stop? Would Dominique Lamb, the CEO of the National Retail Association, confirm or deny that they have ever been in receipt of a contract from BCW relating to the aims of Philip Morris?

As I said at the outset, I was determined to ensure that this inquiry met with standards expected by article 5.3 of the WHO convention, which we are seeking to resolve. I made this known to senators on the committee. Could this be why the National Retail Association declined to appear before the inquiry, or why another group, Legalise Vaping Australia—a group that organised hundreds of form letter submissions to be sent to the inquiry—also declined to appear?

Do senators perhaps think that these groups, these fronts, would have felt uncomfortable describing what links to or assistance from the tobacco industry they've had?

Legalise Vaping Australia is an arm of the Australian Taxpayers' Alliance, a fringe radical group of half-a-dozen libertarians that has previously used social media support funded by British American Tobacco. The head of the Australian Taxpayers' Alliance is a Mr Tim Andrews, who works and lobbies in America against efforts to outlaw or restrict flavoured vaping products. I think you start to get the picture, don't you? Legalise Vaping Australia is run by Mr Brian Marlow. His organisation's website outlines that it jointly runs a fighting fund of just shy of $100,000 with the now defunct Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association. Who now controls this money and for what it is being used is anyone's guess. Tanya Buchanan, the CEO of Cancer Council Australia, was quoted in the AFR piece as saying:

The tobacco industry has a long history of funding third-party front groups to do their dirty work and help drive ongoing revenue streams, which is what is happening now in Australia …

Thankfully, a majority of senators in the inquiry were aware of these efforts. They were mindful of the evidence and supported a commonsense approach to regulating e-cigarettes. We supported that report because it was the right thing to do, and we should support this motion as well.

In the evidence that we received, which is already on the record, the incidence of take-up by younger people in a series of studies on increased nicotine usage is particularly disturbing. Let me be very clear: this is not about reducing nicotine usage. But let me also be very clear that one of the Californian legislators was very clear about vaping and the threats of vaping. The by-products that are put into vaping have not been tested by the TGA and, in the case of California, have not been appropriately tested for the harmful effects that they can produce in and cause to e-cigarette users. It is quite clear that there are competing views and evidence about what should be happening with e-cigarettes, but once the genie is out of the box—once these products are out there—there's no way we'll be able to put it back in.


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