Senate debates

Thursday, 25 February 2021



3:39 pm

Photo of Stirling GriffStirling Griff (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I had Senator Sheldon next.

Senator Canavan interjecting

Senator Canavan, allow me to speak. Senator Canavan, this is what the whips gave me, and I understand this has been cleared by the government whip.

Senator Canavan interjecting

With respect, Senator Canavan, that is Senator Griff.

Senator Canavan interjecting

Senator Canavan, please resume your seat. The custom in here is that we go by the list. I accept that a senator who stands to seek the call must be given the call. I am trying to abide, by custom and practice, with what the government, Senator Griff and the opposition have put forward, but if you are pressing the point then I will call you, Senator Canavan.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pressing the point. I was clearly on my feet first.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Canavan, I have given you the call.

3:52 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. Clearly, Senator Griff has not only brought in a motion that's full of conspiracy theories, full of slurs and misinformation; he has then tried to concoct a speakers list that doesn't give any scrutiny to these claims. He knows very well that none of the speakers—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Canavan, please resume your seat. Senator Siewert, on a point of order?

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

Senator Canavan is misleading the chamber. Senator Henderson was next on the list, so he should stop accusing Senator Griff of concocting the debate.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Siewert, I appreciate the sentiment, but that's not a breach of the standing orders.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Exactly, because—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Canavan, please resume your seat. Senator Urquhart was also seeking the call. Senator Urquhart, on a point of order?

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was going to point out that the list is a convention and that we have had an agreement with the government on this convention for a very, very long time. I understand it is not a standing order, but it is a convention that we have agreed to and we have honoured. We have had people from various parties come in here to try to dispute that over a period of time out of rudeness for the convention that we have a good agreement with this government on. I would ask that that convention continue.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Urquhart. I have made that point to Senator Canavan, but I am respecting the standing orders in that he sought the call. Senator Smith, on a point of order?

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will just reinforce the comments that have been made by other senators in the last few moments. The chamber does run on courtesies and on arrangements that are set in place by the whips, which ensure that the chair can guide and steward the chamber in a very constructive way that allows everyone to make a contribution. I think it's fair to say that, because this particular part of the day started earlier than people anticipated, we will get more of a debate in this general business time than we've had on previous Thursday afternoons. We are now at the general business part of the day because other opportunities were not taken with documents, ministerial statements et cetera, so I'm very confident that all the speakers that are listed on the informal speaking list will get an opportunity to make a contribution.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Smith. I have allowed some leeway in giving the whips an opportunity to speak, but I now want Senator Canavan to continue his remarks and not be interrupted.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Chief Government Whip makes a very good point there. Normally in this debate the last speaker might not get on. Senator Griff knows—I believe he put the list forward—that the only speaker on the list opposed to his point of view is in fact me. So, before knowing that this debate would start earlier, he potentially tried to impose and not have anybody speak against his motion in this debate. That does show the sensitivity of those pushing this issue.

Senator Urquhart interjecting

I take Senator Urquhart's point that this is a convention. It's never been a convention that I have ever disregarded, but conventions have to be in the spirit of the standing orders, and the standing orders clearly say that the call should go round the chamber, with the intention of encouraging debate. This list has been concocted by Senator Griff. It was clearly an attempt to override the intention and spirit of the standing orders and remove debate. I'm not afraid of debate, Senator Griff. I'm not afraid of debating these issues with you. You may want to make slur and innuendo about me and other colleagues—you ran the inquiry like that—but I'm happy to look you in the eye and take you on. You didn't want me to speak tonight, but I'm happy—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Canavan, please resume your seat. May I ask you to direct your comments to the chair, and may I say I am looking forward to you covering the subject matter of today's motion. Senator Siewert, are you seeking a point of order?

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

Yes, I am. I seek to table the list that was circulated in the chamber, which clearly shows there was a speaking list and that Senator Henderson was next. Senator Canavan continues to mislead the chamber when he knows very well that what he's saying is not true.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you seeking leave?

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

I seek leave to table the list.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Is leave granted?

Senator Canavan interjecting

Just a moment, Senator Canavan. I'm going to call it again. Senator Siewert is seeking leave. Is leave granted? I have had a 'yes'. I will seek some further advice. In the meantime, please continue, Senator Canavan.

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. As I was saying, this motion is full of conspiracy theories about money and funding and connections. I think Senator Griff got out the ball of wool and the corkboard and started tying tacks between different people to make connections. There are more conspiracy theories in this motion than a Q thread on Twitter. In fact, I think that by moving this motion Senator Griff is actually the Q Shaman of the Australian Senate. He just needs a Viking cap, some body paint and he'll be away. This debate is absolutely descending into conspiracy theories—not the facts, not the relevant information.

I listened closely to Senator Griff's contribution earlier and there was absolutely no attempt to deal with the real evidence that exists around the world—the decisions and law changes that have been made in other countries—that the use of e-cigarettes can cut smoking rates and save lives. There was no attempt at all from Senator Griff to engage with that. I'm happy to say that I recognise that our regulatory authorities—our TGA, our Department of Health—have a different view to those other people, but they are very much outliers. Almost every other country in the world, certainly developed countries like ours, has taken steps to legalise vaping or at least allow and promote its use as a useful quit-smoking aid. There is no attempt in Senator Griff's motion to deal with those issues and confront that evidence. It's just, 'Oh, these people here are getting money,' and, 'Someone is friends with that person over there,' and, 'There was an article in the paper that says bad things and therefore they all must be evil and terrible.' Let's actually take it back to the evidence and the data, because this debate, these issues, involves real people's lives and opportunities. The real people in this debate are often ignored and derided, as we've seen through the sham of a Senate committee process and in the debate over the past few months. Real people are derided. Real people are told they don't know what they're talking about. Real people are told that they should just go cold turkey and not worry about using things that have helped them get off a terrible, terrible habit.

I want to say upfront that all of us share the view that we'd like to see smoking rates fall. All of us share the view that smoking is a terrible habit that we hope people don't get addicted to. All of us agree that smoking kills far too many people in this country. It is still the largest killer of Australians, as to the use of alcohol or drugs.

I and other advocates for the legalisation of e-cigarettes don't want to see people take up e-cigarettes either, because we understand that there are risks around the use of nicotine. But it is clearly the case that e-cigarettes are much less harmful than smoking. Senator Griff can argue the toss over whether it's 95 per cent lower or 50 per cent, but he can't walk away from the fact that the federal Department of Health have ruled that vaping or e-cigarettes are much less harmful than cigarettes—they said that in the Senate inquiry. They are much less harmful. What's the percentage figure? I don't know.

But I'd love to see people use less harmful things rather than more harmful things. It's a pretty simple rule. I'd love to see that happen. But it's hard to have that happen in this country because we continue to lag behind the world in the use of the latest evidence and the legalisation of these products so more people can quit and improve their lives.

There are accusations that all these views that I and others take are all because big bad companies want us to, and all this rubbish. Well, I want to say: it's actually real people that I've had connection with that have influenced my views on this issue. I don't smoke. I hadn't vaped until the inquiry. I vaped for the first time, somewhere—at a Christmas party, I think—over Christmas. I don't like it. I'm not going to take it up. It was never something personal for me. But it was real people who I knew whom these products had helped to quit—real people who contacted me, after the government announced a ban on the importation of liquid nicotine to take effect within a week, who were very worried about what was going to happen to their lives and to their mental health in the middle of a pandemic. That's what caused and triggered me to get involved in this.

A few months ago, I was touring around coalmines—as I like to do, from time to time!—and I went to a crib room and spoke to a couple of truck drivers, and one of them there said, 'Oh, yeah, I know you. I get your emails.' And I thought, 'This bloke probably knows that I kind of like coal. Despite the Labor Party's attempts to shut it down, I want to support their jobs and support their livelihoods.' And I thought he might be on that email distribution list. But, no, straightaway he said: 'You're the vaping guy. You want to let me keep vaping. I like you.' Guess what? At the mines—and a lot of the Labor Party senators wouldn't know this because they don't go to mines or those sorts of places anymore—quite often, smoking is banned. It's banned because it's not a useful thing to have, particularly at a coal mine; you don't want flames around. So it's banned. So those people who are, unfortunately, addicted to nicotine don't have a lot of other choices. You people can say that there are gums and all this other stuff, but you're not connecting it back to the real world. These guys work in a hard job. They work 12 hours a day. They're away from their families for weeks at a time. And then people over here want to deny them the right to have just a little bit of relief in their lives. They want to deny them that right because they think they know better—they know better than what that coalminer thinks in Moranbah. That's what sums up this whole debate. Senator Griff, Senator Sheldon and other senators in this place think they know better than the average worker in a coalmine about what's good for them.

Well, I back average, everyday Australians to make decisions about their health. It's unfortunate that too many Australians have found themselves addicted to nicotine and reliant on smokes to get it. But I do back adult Australians to make decisions about how they want to try to kick the habit and have a better life—particularly when e-cigarettes are clearly less harmful than smoking. All the evidence says that.

As I said before, Senator Griff refused to engage with the overseas evidence that clearly says this. He refused to even indicate that other countries have clearly adopted and legalised e-cigarette products and have done so because of the clear evidence that they help. The motion Senator Griff has put up is very timely, though, because just yesterday Public Health England released a comprehensive report, which they do annually, on the effects of e-cigarettes. It's a very comprehensive report. It's about 426 pages. I would recommend it to all senators interested in this debate. The attitude and conclusions of Public Health England are very different from those of our own health authorities. As I said, I recognise our health authorities have a different view, but they are not the Pope; they are not infallible. We should look at all the evidence around the world, especially in countries which have taken a different path to us. Public Health England demonstrate clear evidence of the impact of the legalisation of vaping and the benefits that has had for real people, who should be the centre of that debate.

This report by Public Health England, which was published yesterday, said:

    That is 50,000 real people in the United Kingdom who no longer have a terrible habit, thanks to the use of vaping. The report went on to say:

      This goes to the point. Senator Griff wanted to deride the evidence that vaping is less harmful. Senator Griff's statements are harmful of themselves, because he perpetuates the myth, which is very prevalent among smokers, that vaping is just as bad as smoking. According to Public Health England, more than half of smokers believe that vaping is harmful or more harmful than smoking. That will obviously prevent people from choosing a less harmful product, because they are fed myths and lies by the advocates or those that are standing against vaping. The report went on to say:

        They estimate that, over the past two years, between 60 per cent and 74 per cent of those who used a vaping product were successful in quitting. That's real evidence, not speculation, not complicated econometric tests. It's real evidence that more than half of people in the United Kingdom who try vaping products actually end up successfully quitting. That's pretty good. The report continued:

        Vaping has plateaued in adults and young people since the last PHE report in March 2020.

        This report comes out every year, and there is no evidence that vaping has increased among young people, which is often a criticism made of attempts at legalisation. It has actually plateaued. There hasn't been any increase among young people. Importantly, on this point, the report states that around 4.8 per cent of young people—in this report they're defined as aged between 11 and 18—reported vaping at least once a month, which is the same as for last year. Obviously that's unfortunate. We don't want to see any young people take up this habit, but there's no evidence of an increase. And the report says that most of these people were either current or former smokers. So, even in the category of young people aged 11 to 18 who were vaping, most of them had been former smokers or were current smokers. As we know, smoking is even worse. The report says that only 0.8 per cent—less than one per cent—of young people who had never smoked currently vape.

        I know there is a scare campaign saying that vaping will lead to young people taking up smoking or worse products, but there's not a lot of evidence around the world that that actually happens. Again, I stress that, if there were a legalisation attempt, we'd all support restrictions to make sure that under-age Australians would not have access to these products. We would restrict it, just as we do with smoking. Is it perfect? No. But is anyone here going to stand up and say, 'No young people smoke in this country'? It's illegal to sell smokes to someone below the age of 18. It's illegal for an under-age person to use a tobacco-smoke product, but, unfortunately, it happens.

        We would be better off trying to impose real enforcement efforts rather than put a blindfold on and think none of this actually occurs. That's why we should look at things like the New Zealand parliament and what they have done. It is another example of a country like ours taking steps to legalise vaping because they've seen the clear evidence that it can help cut smoking rates. They have adopted a model with very strict advertising, selling and retail arrangements to prevent this product getting into the hands of young people. They have allowed the product to be used as a quit aid. The fact that we close our eyes to the evidence indicates to me that the entrenched positions some have taken in the Department of Health and other organisations are the real barrier to progress and to making people's lives better.

        The other side here, and Senator Griff said the same, like to say that the US is the example. The US is a free-for-all, and no-one is advocating that model. We don't want that. We don't want THC in our products. We don't want vitamin E acetate. They are causing real issues. But let's have proper regulation to make sure that we can help those in this country who find themselves addicted to nicotine and actually return this debate to them.

        This debate is not about the health bureaucrats. It's not about the health academics. It's not about what our position has been or how successful we've been as a country in the last few decades in cutting smoking. It is about the 12 per cent of Australians who continue to smoke on a daily basis and need some help to get off a terrible habit so they can have better lives, so they can be better mothers, better fathers, and they don't continue this habit throughout generations in this country.

        Photo of Claire ChandlerClaire Chandler (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        Senator Sheldon, before I give you the call, I have to clarify that leave was denied to Senator Siewert's request to table the speakers' list, just so the chamber is clear on that.

        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.

        4:22 pm

        Photo of Sarah HendersonSarah Henderson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        It's my great pleasure to rise and support the motion put forward by Senator Griff. I also want to commend the very strong contribution made by Senator Sheldon. Senator Canavan mentioned and called for proper regulation of e-cigarettes, and that is exactly what this government is doing. The motion is so important that I want to read it out to the Senate so that those who are listening to this debate can appreciate the importance of this motion and why it's so critical to support it. Not only does Senator Griff, in his motion, note 'the tobacco industry has a vested interest in promoting e-cigarettes'; we heard from Senator Sheldon, who articulated the money trail between a number of pro-vaping organisations and big tobacco. The motion 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;

        The motion:

        … 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;

        As both Senator Griff and Senator Sheldon have pointed out in this debate, this was not disclosed to our Senate Select Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction. The motion notes the recent Senate committee inquiry asked each witness to state whether they had ever received tobacco industry funding. Some groups, such as the Brisbane based National Retail Association, provided submissions advocating the benefit of e-cigarettes but declined invitations to give evidence. That's very important. The reason this is important is that they would have then been forced to answer the question as to whether they had received very significant funding from the tobacco industry. They gave a misleading submission to our inquiry, because they fundamentally declined, and I would say covered-up, the fact that they had received very substantial funding from big tobacco.

        The last part of the motion supports the findings of our inquiry's majority report that 'Australia has taken a sensible approach to vaping'. 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. That is fundamental. That is what our government is so concerned about. That is why we are implementing, as a government, sensible regulation, just as Senator Canavan called for. We obviously have a difference of view as to what that might be, but I am very proud to have been a part of this majority report, which adopts the government's position that we must take a precautionary approach.

        I was speaking to someone the other day about what's going on in the United States. Vaping is everywhere. Young kids on university campuses everywhere across the States are vaping. It is insidious. There is deep and warranted concern that this is a gateway not just to tobacco but to other more serious drugs.

        The Therapeutic Goods Administration, the independent regulator, made the decision on 21 December 2020 that from 1 October 2021, consumers importing nicotine will require a doctor's prescription to legally access nicotine e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine. Child resistance closures for liquid nicotine will also be mandatory. This is not a ban on nicotine. The TGA's decision follows extensive public consultation and is consistent with the existing ban in all states and territories on the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes without a doctor's prescription.

        The TGA's decision bridges a regulatory gap between state and territory law regulating nicotine e-cigarettes and the Commonwealth law regulating their import. The TGA decision-maker's reasons for the decision included:

        … to mitigate the potential uptake of smoking in young adults who would otherwise be at low risk of initiating nicotine addiction.

        The introduction of a novel nicotine delivery system may have a negative impact on tobacco control and may renormalise smoking. The TGA was also concerned:

        … that exposure to nicotine in adolescents may have long-term consequences for brain development, potentially leading to learning and anxiety disorders.

        The TGA was also concerned about the unknown toxicity of long-term exposure to heated and inhaled chemicals, and the risk of accidental exposure to children, particularly in relation to liquid nicotine.

        The Morrison government, in consultation with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australian Medical Association and other medical experts will be developing a telehealth smoking cessation item that will be available six months prior to the implementation date, 1 October 2021. As part of this work, the government will provide $1 million for an education campaign, focused on smoking cessation. Major healthcare professional and consumer education programs are also scheduled for later in the year, to inform people about the changes. The previously proposed Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations prohibiting the importation of e-cigarettes containing vaporiser nicotine—that is, nicotine in solution or in salt or base form—and nicotine-containing refills without a prescription from a GP will not be proceeding due to the significant overlap with the TGA decision. What our government has put forward, supported by the TGA, the highly credentialled independent regulator, is sensible, responsible regulation.

        I want to also reference an article by The Australian Financial Review's Neil Chenoweth on 20 February. There is some very good journalism in this article, where he reveals the money trail and the connection with big tobacco, particularly Philip Morris. I quote:

        The revelations that Philip Morris was secretly funding the push to legalise e-cigarettes undercuts claims by vaping advocates that legalisation would destroy the business model of tobacco companies.

        We know—even from the evidence received in our inquiry—that that's not true. This is the great panacea, the great way forward, for the tobacco companies. They see vaping as their next great big commercial opportunity. This is why they are funding these vaping advocacy groups. They are driving their next revenue stream, as they have done in other parts of the world. That is going to lead to more harm and to a greater addiction for those who take up smoking and perhaps other drugs. I mentioned before the deep concern about the gateway effect of e-cigarettes. The article goes on:

        "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," says Tanya Buchanan, CEO of Cancer Council Australia.

        That is the basis on which the Retailers Association board cancelled the contract with Burson Cohn & Wolfe, recognising that this was not in the best interests of the organisation or the retailers it represents. Paul Zahra said:

        The ARA has taken a strong position on this issue under my leadership. We don't believe the advocacy of vaping products are in the best interests of the wider retail industry. Nor is it an appropriate use of ARA resources.

        So these pro-vaping advocacy groups have been caught out. They didn't have the guts to front our inquiry because they knew they would have to give evidence and tell the truth as to how they were funded. As I say, I am very proud of the work that we've done and I would recommend that all Australians read our majority report, including the additional remarks which I made, where I canvassed a number of additional recommendations. I want to briefly reference those. I started by saying that, as the majority of the members of the Senate Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction found:

        … a prescription based model provides the best pathway to strike an appropriate balance between providing treatment options for long term smokers under medical supervision while protecting against the legitimate risk of uptake of e-cigarette use from non-smokers, particularly young Australians …

        It is also appropriate that decisions around regulation and access to medicines and poisons are made by an independent health regulator, on public health grounds, such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

        The reason the TGA has taken this precautionary approach—and this is a point I want to reference in relation to Senator Canavan's contribution—is that the evidence is limited. That is absolutely crucial. I continued:

        The current limited evidence regarding efficacy of e-cigarettes, the unknown long term risk of e-cigarettes and legitimate concerns around the uptake of e-cigarettes amongst non-smokers warrant a precautionary approach to this issue.

        This is entirely consistent with other nicotine replacement therapies which make health claims. It also adopts a conservative approach, initially, to the availability of new products making therapeutic claims, which is a proper and sensible approach.

        I now want to briefly reference a number of recommendations that I made in my additional remarks in the majority report. The Commonwealth should ensure that telehealth under Medicare is universally accessible for smoking cessation to assist smokers to quit. I am very pleased that the government has implemented that measure. The Commonwealth government should immediately review the affordability of nicotine replacement products and move to list more of these products on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, in line with medical evidence, because if people want to stop smoking we want to give them every support we possibly can. Upon application, and subject to the usual public health assessment processes, the TGA should consider reviewing the classification of liquid nicotine to enable it to be sold in pharmacies without a prescription. That's a recommendation I put forward subject to the TGA's assessment. Obviously, in adopting the medical model, if the TGA believes that this is appropriate, it is also open to the TGA to recommend the slightly broader accessibility of e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine through pharmacies. My final recommendation was that we should introduce legislation consistent with other countries which requires tobacco companies to mandatorily disclose details of expenditure, including on tobacco and nicotine marketing.

        I commend to the Senate the motion brought forward by Senator Griff today. I'm very proud of the majority report and I recommend that all Australians read it.

        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.

        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.

        5:03 pm

        Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

        We've just heard Senator Small's contribution to the discussion on this motion on e-cigarettes. Whilst he is obviously a supporter of taking more action on e-cigarettes, what we heard is that the government plans to do stuff at some point in the future. The problem with the Morrison government is that they've turned into a bit of a 'gonna' government—they're always 'gonna' do something at some later date. We've heard a lot about reports that were tabled ages ago and nothing's happened. It seems this e-cigarette debate, because of some wobbliness from their backbench, is also going to take its time. It caused me to reflect on how difficult it seems to be for conservative governments in this country to move on social reform and other health reforms.

        I remember when Labor put forward the plain-packaging legislation. Oh, my goodness me, to hear from those opposite, who at that time were in opposition, it was as if the sky was going to fall. I appreciate that the tobacco lobby is very, very powerful. It's very good at the games it plays because it's been playing them for a very, very long time. I know Senator Siewert in her contribution talked about the tobacco lobby. But seriously, this is about the potential take-up rate of smoking. We have led the world with smoking reform in this country and now, for all of us, it's really unusual to have someone amongst us who smokes. And, yes, of course, it's their right to smoke—I am not suggesting that it's not—but we've made it almost impossible to smoke anywhere these days and that's a solid move because there's clearly public health research that tells us it's bad. But that doesn't mean that the tobacco lobby is sitting there with its feet up; it's still snapping at our heels. The most recent debate we've had in this country was plain packaging. Those opposite, who were in opposition at the time, behaved shamelessly because, obviously, the tobacco lobby was in their ears.

        Marriage equality, saying sorry to First Nations people—all of these things are so difficult for this government. We should really be seizing the day on e-cigarettes and moving quickly, because the evidence is there already that they are harmful to young children. We already know that there are toxins in some of the e-cigarettes that are available. Last year or—I can't remember now—the year before, I travelled to the UK, whenever it was we were last allowed out. And I commend the government on closing international borders; I'm not wanting them open. The e-cigarettes in the UK and Europe are shocking; they are everywhere. As an Australian, when you're not used to any kind of smoke, they come as a bit of a shock. So we could lead the world here. I urge the government to get on with the job, to stand up to its backbench. If they're being influenced by the tobacco lobby then let's realise that. Let's be a first and not be dragging our heels on this matter. E-cigarettes, we should stomp on them right away, let's get rid of them and make sure that we continue to provide the utmost health opportunities for young people to not create addictions.

        5:07 pm

        Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

        One Nation opposes this motion. As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I'll explain why. Vapes and e-cigarettes are as safe as the vaping solution's contents. E-cigs should be available in Australia using the established Therapeutic Goods Administration procedure for schedule 3 pharmacy-only medications. This would allow local producers to submit their products to the TGA for testing and approval. Those approved devices and solutions would then be made using good manufacturing process right here in Australia. This would offer complete assurance to Australian consumers that the product they're using is safe. The approval process is quick and cheap, as compared to potential sales revenue. Distribution should be limited to pharmacists.

        Our policy follows a review of both academic research and empirical data from around the world. Thousands of pages of science and data support the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as an aid to quit smoking. Public Health England has found the available evidence suggests that e-cigs are likely to be considerably less harmful than cigarettes. A peer reviewed article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Drug Policy found there was no support for the argument that vaping is a gateway to smoking, no support. The article produced empirical evidence that clearly shows e-cigarettes have accompanied a reduction in smoking rates in countries where quit rates had previously stagnated.

        What is wrong with paying attention to the science and the reality? It's debates like this debate around e-cigarettes and vaping that leads One Nation to call for an office of scientific integrity. These matters are far too important to be decided by a selective quoting of reports so as to support any pre-conceived position. Good government requires the truth—not duelling reports, not fear, not ideology, not vested interests, not uninformed opinion, not emotions—facts and data. An office of scientific integrity and quality assurance would allow independent scientists and advocates to test these important issues and from that process the truth would have the best chance of emerging.

        Question agreed to.