Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021



4:37 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution on general business motion 1038, which is in Senator Griff's name and also now in the names of Senator Sheldon, Senator Urquhart and me. Last year I participated in the Select Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction. I wish to articulate some of the points we learned and the concerns the Greens have about big tobacco's continual push of e-cigarettes as a gateway to smoking. It is very clear that big tobacco have an agenda here; otherwise they would not be involved. Anybody who thinks they have the health of the community at heart has rocks in their head. They continue to push their 'death sticks' in countries that don't have the good regulation of tobacco that we have in this country.

I am very proud of the strong record Australia has in dealing with smoking. I never want to see smoking take hold to the level it previously did in this country. Let's face it, that is the game and the focus of big tobacco. The evidence presented to the committee reinforced to me that we cannot afford to undo the many years of outstanding public health campaigns that have substantially reduced the level of tobacco smoking in Australia. Currently over 95 per cent of people aged between 14 and 17 in Australia have never smoked, a statistic Australia should be proud of. However, evidence from Professor Banks, from the ANU, noted that there is a 300 per cent increase in the risk of nonsmokers becoming regular smokers of tobacco after using e-cigarettes—and she continues to do further work and research in this space, which I think will contribute further to the evidence around e-cigarettes. We also heard evidence that the proportion of young people aged between 18 and 24 who have used e-cigarettes in their life increased from 19 per cent to 26 per cent between 2016 and 2019. The association with e-cigarette users who have never smoked cigarettes before but then go on to become regular tobacco users is known, as I just said a moment ago, as the gateway effect. The Greens are strongly concerned that e-cigarettes and the gateway effect have the ability to undermine decades of work undertaken in Australia to achieve such low levels of smoking. There is real concern that the increased use of e-cigarettes by young people will result in the normalisation and increased uptake of regular tobacco smoking.

It's also important to consider the use of flavourings in e-cigarettes in this context, and I want to focus on this. It's an issue that I think is not getting enough attention. Flavourings in e-cigarettes was the subject of an event that the Lung Foundation of Australia held via Zoom with parliamentarians yesterday. In a groundbreaking study funded by the Lung Foundation and the Minderoo Foundation, Curtin University tested 52 flavoured e-liquids for sale over the counter in Australia and found 100 per cent of the e-liquids were inaccurately labelled, 100 per cent contained chemicals with unknown effects on respiratory health, 21 per cent contained nicotine and 62 per cent contained chemicals likely to be toxic if vaped repeatedly.

The Lung Foundation also set out their expert position statement on flavoured e-cigarettes and young Australians. This position statement recognises that young Australians aged between 13 and 24 are vulnerable to short- and long-term health implications of an unknown product. It recommends that action taken must be precautionary, protective, transparent, collaborative, evidence based and free from industry influence. The Lung Foundation is also calling on governments across Australia to protect the respiratory health of young Australians by immediately increasing the cost of flavoured e-liquids and associated devices through taxation, immediately introducing plain packaging for all flavoured e-cigarettes, immediately mandating that flavoured e-cigarettes be subject to the same rules and advertising and promotion regulation as combustible cigarettes, and banning the sale of flavoured e-liquids in Australia. That's how serious the Lung Foundation of Australia consider the implications of flavoured liquids in e-cigarettes.

We can't afford to let big tobacco companies undo decades of hard work in this country. The Greens continue to hold significant concerns about the active involvement of the big tobacco industry in the debate around regulatory reform of e-cigarettes in Australia. The motivations of the industry were clearly articulated in a Philip Morris International sponsored article on the website of The Australian. This advertisement—and it was an advertisement, even though you're not supposed to be advertising cigarettes anymore; this article clearly skirted around that rule and was aimed as an advertisement—claimed government regulation was prohibiting Australian smokers from accessing e-cigarettes which, in their view, are a viable and safer alternative for combustible cigarette smokers. We have to ask why big tobacco is so strongly against the prescription-only model for tobacco and advocate that e-cigarettes should be available as a broader consumer product if not to promote the use of tobacco and heated tobacco and to promote the sale of their products. It is clear that big tobacco hold the view that vaping and e-cigarettes offer new profit-making opportunities as traditional combustible smoking rates continue to reach record low levels in Australia. They have not given up on trying to sell cigarettes. They sell them to our neighbours that have poorer regulatory provisions on smoking. If they were really committed to looking after the health of the world's population, they would, in fact, not be selling cigarettes. They clearly still want to sell products such as heated tobacco that will still harm people's health. There is a very clear conflict of interest here with big tobacco.

This is a public health issue and regulation should be considered and enacted without the influence of big tobacco or other commercial interests. At the various hearings during the Select Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction, we heard from a variety of commercial enterprises, including those running petrol stations and convenience stores in petrol stations. At the inquiry we heard people saying that doctors don't really understand and don't provide advice on e-cigarettes, and neither do pharmacists—that pharmacists won't be able to provide advice on vaping implements or the various flavours which specialist vaping shops can provide. Then the rent-seekers came in and said: 'We run convenience stores at petrol stations and we want to be able to sell vaping implements. Our staff will be specially trained to provide advice about how you could use your vaping implements and liquids to reduce smoking.' What a pack of nonsense! I don't know about you, but when I go to the petrol station I go there to buy petrol, by and large; occasionally, I pick up some milk. The people are all very nice, but I wouldn't want them to provide me with health advice. Yet that's what these people were saying: that people in these convenience stores will be able to provide someone with health advice on how they can use e-cigarettes and vaping to reduce their smoking. Apparently doctors can't do it, but people running convenience stores can! As I said, they're very nice people, but I bet they don't have a medical or a pharmacy degree. This is the sort of rent-seeking that's going on in this debate. It is not about tobacco harm reduction. The long-term evidence isn't there.

We have world-leading regulation here. This country should be proud of the record that we have had in terms of reducing smoking. We had world-leading legislation around plain paper packaging—world-leading! Why would we want to undermine that by winding back the regulatory process?

I'll grant you, we had evidence at the committee that some people had found using e-cigarettes beneficial in reducing harm. We also had evidence that some people had gone back to smoking or were using a combination. Clearly, it has helped some people. The TGA process and the prescription approach would mean that someone could do that with the support of their medical practitioner as part of their smoking cessation plan. But the evidence is not there that it's appropriate to let vaping vendors provide that advice. The evidence, as I understand it, from Professor Banks, is in fact the reverse. We can't afford to take the risk. I got a little bit sick of hearing 'Take the advice of other countries.' Other countries are taking the advice and following the lead of Australia when it comes to issues like plain paper packaging. This is a public health debate and it should be treated as a public health debate. It's not about enabling big tobacco and other rent-seekers to come in and push measures that will harm people's health.

The work of the Lung Foundation on flavours—which was very timely, being just before this debate—is cause for further alarm. I recommend that anybody who has an interest in this debate go and look at what they were saying about the impact of flavourings in e-cigarettes as well. So, yes, this is about nicotine, but, as far as I'm concerned, it's also about some of the flavourings that are going in and the impact that is having on people's lungs and, ultimately, their health.

I support this motion and recommend that Australia continues its world-leading approach to reducing tobacco harm and not follow those other countries and their unproven methods on tobacco harm reduction. To those who do want to try e-cigarettes as part of their tobacco-smoking cessation program, please go to your doctors. My message to the doctors is: if someone comes to you and asks about a smoking cessation plan and e-cigarettes, look at the latest research and help people. You are there as trusted health practitioners; enable people to have a proper program for smoking reduction. There was some evidence from people that their GP didn't understand some of the issues around e-cigarettes. Medical practitioners need to get up to speed and help people kick the habit—not replace one habit with another, but kick the habit of smoking.


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