Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021



4:51 pm

Photo of Ben SmallBen Small (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I acknowledge some of the very good points that my fellow senator from Western Australia Senator Siewert made. The Australian government is taking a very precautionary approach to e-cigarettes, ably led by Minister Hunt. Our approach is supported by the majority of Australia's leading health and medical organisations and, of course, the Therapeutic Goods Administration. Whilst the government is aware that there are a variety of approaches to this issue across the globe, the government will continue to monitor the direct harms that e-cigarettes pose to human health. Importantly, it will monitor the impact on both smoking initiation and cessation; monitor the uptake amongst our youth; and further inquire as to the dual use with conventional tobacco products, as these are all relevant considerations when it comes to the matter of e-cigarettes.

There is no doubt that there are direct harms associated with e-cigarette use. There is very real potential for e-cigarette use to lead to nicotine addiction and hence tobacco use, particularly among young Australians. Currently, we have insufficient evidence to actively promote the use of e-cigarettes for the purpose of smoking cessation. That's a very key realisation. Further, I think it's important to recognise that the regulation of e-cigarettes is currently a shared responsibility, with the Commonwealth and the states and territories each sharing in this. E-cigarettes regulation draws upon existing legislation and the regulations that apply to tobacco products, therapeutic goods, poisons and consumer goods. It is clear that this is not a simple matter; it is an evolving matter and one that the Australian government, rightly, is therefore taking an incremental approach to.

It's currently illegal to sell nicotine-containing e-cigarettes in every state and territory. Possession in all jurisdictions, except South Australia, is also illegal without a valid medical prescription. The current situation is that legally imported materials are then illegally possessed under state and territory law. This is reflective of the complexity that surrounds the regulation with e-cigarettes and nicotine-containing products.

Senator Siewert rightly mentioned that any doctor may currently prescribe nicotine-containing e-cigarettes that can be used for consumers for personal importation. This is not widely understood. I think it's an important matter of public information that there are more than 30,000 GPs in this country that may currently, and certainly can continue into the future, to prescribe nicotine based e-cigarettes for the purposes of smoking cessation.

Any of those general practitioners can also register with the TGA to become what is known as an authorised prescriber. A GP who is an authorised prescriber can issue prescriptions for e-cigarettes for dispensing at a local pharmacy as an alternative option to personal importation. This affords Australians who wish to stop smoking to have greater flexibility and exercise a greater degree of personal choice as to how they go about that important decision. Therefore the TGA's decision in this respect will both reduce the risk of an on-ramp for teenagers to adopt nicotine use and, as has been highlighted, also rectify the issue of legal importation but illegal possession.

Medicines and poisons are classified into various schedules in the poison standard, according to the level of regulatory control over the access that the substance has with respect to protecting public health and safety. Therefore those regulatory approaches to e-cigarettes vary considerably with other nations ranging from prohibition to no regulation whatsoever; therefore Australia cannot be considered to be an outlier in that respect. The TGA, as a totally independent regulator charged with many important decisions, made the decision on 21 December 2020 that, from October of this year, consumers importing nicotine will require a doctor's prescription to legally access nicotine e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine. An important part of this was child-resistant closures for that liquid nicotine will also be mandatory but, importantly, the TGA's decision was not a ban on nicotine.

The TGA's decision is consistent with the existing ban in all states and territories on the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes without a doctor's prescription. I think it's worth reflecting on the presence of 30,000 GPs in Australia who can prescribe these devices to an individual who seeks to stop smoking. The TGA's decision also bridges that regulatory gap between the variety of state and territory regulation of nicotine e-cigarettes and the Commonwealth law as it relates to their importation. The Therapeutic Goods Administration also took actions to further educate Australians, set minimum safety and quality requirements, and encourage further research in cooperation with the Department of Health.

The government will continue to develop a smoking cessation plan that will be available six months prior to the 1 October 2021 implementation date. As part of this work, the government will provide a million dollars for the education campaign focused on smoking cessation. Promoting major healthcare professionals and consumer education programs is a complementary way of addressing this issue. The previously proposed customs prohibited imports regulations prohibiting the importation of e-cigarettes containing vaporised nicotine and nicotine-containing refills without a prescription from a GP will not be proceeding due to the significant overlap with the TGA decision. The government will also monitor the impacts of these changes to the poisons standard.

Senator Siewert rightly referred this matter to the Senate Select Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction inquiry, and the government is in the process of considering the report of that inquiry with regard to the TGA's scheduling decision to include nicotine as a prescription-only medicine. It won't come as a surprise to honourable senators to know that the Department of Health, and indeed the Minister for Health, have had a little bit on their plate in the last 12 months as we seek to protect lives and livelihoods through the COVID-19 pandemic. But Australia is committed to protecting public health policies in relation to tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests in the tobacco and indeed any industry. We are alive to the very real conflicts that exist in this space.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of listening to the Lung Foundation and Minderoo Foundation jointly present the results of some research that they have conducted in this space. The research was undertaken by Curtin University and involved testing 52 samples of flavoured e-liquids. According to the research, 21 per cent of the samples that were tested contained nicotine—so that's one in five phials of e-liquid contained nicotine—62 per cent contained chemicals likely to be toxic if vaped repeatedly and, incredibly, 100 per cent, or every single one of the 52 samples, were inaccurately labelled. The research also found that 100 per cent—that is, all 52—of the samples that were tested contained chemicals with unknown effects on respiratory health.

The Morrison government believes that it is essential that Australian consumers know what they are consuming. On 30 September 2020 the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health of the Australian National University published a summary report on the use of e-cigarettes and its relation to tobacco smoking uptake and cessation relevant to the Australian context. The report is broadly consistent with the latest advice from medical industry experts and reaffirms the precautionary approach that the Morrison government is taking to e-cigarettes. The ANU report reaffirmed the importance of limiting access to the specific circumstance of e-cigarettes containing nicotine. But I do note the important research that was undertaken by Curtin University, where 21 per cent of samples actually did contain nicotine and 100 per cent of those samples were incorrectly labelled. So the very real issue that Australian consumers need clarity on is a clear, reliable understanding of what they are consuming.

Through the National Health and Medical Research Council, since 2011 the government has supported 13 grants and committed over $12.6 million to research into e-cigarettes. This is not a new problem. It's an evolving problem and one that the government takes very seriously. I was quite intrigued by one aspect of the Curtin University research that found that chocolate flavoured vapes are amongst the most likely to be harmful to human health by virtue of containing benzene rings and other compounds, whereas peppermint flavoured vapes are reportedly much less likely to cause a harmful reaction in human cells.

Senator Siewert interjecting—

Yes, I was very taken aback, Senator Siewert, to learn that chocolate could be bad for you in the context of e-vaping, and I share your pain. But let me affirm to all senators present that the government is committed to an incremental and carefully considered approach to e-cigarettes. With that said, I guess there's much more to come.


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