Guest Post: Terry Barnes – Don’t over-regulate e-cigarettes

Using electronic cigarettes (ECs) is becoming an increasingly popular way to beat the smoking habit.

Most ECs heat flavoured liquids into steamy vapour (hence “vaping”), with one key difference to smoking: the vapour doesn’t contain the tars and other deadly chemicals contained in tobacco smoke.  In Australia, too, the liquid doesn’t contain additive nicotine.

This week, a South Australian parliamentary inquiry into ECs, headed by Labor MP Annabel Digance, released its long-awaited final report.  It is a thorough and measured report, and that it didn’t call for a ban on ECs in South Australia was welcome.  It also rightly warns against selling or marketing ECs to minors, and recommends more research into their benefits and risks.

But Digance’s report also disappoints for several reasons.  First, it endorses following other states, notably Queensland, in wanting to regulate ECs as if they are the real tobacco deal.  For selling, marketing and using ECs in legislatively smoke-free places, it recommends extending prohibitions on cigarettes in the state’s Tobacco Products Regulation Act.  It also sees ECs simply as quitting aids, not general alternatives to coffin nails.  The fact that, as things stand in Australia, e-cigarettes don’t contain nicotine, has been disregarded.

Second, it accepts the standard orthodoxy of the Australian public health establishment.  It assumes that ECs are inherently dangerous, and swallows the prevailing World Health Organisation tobacco control fanaticism hook, line and sinker.  It repeats the furphy about vaping “re-normalising” smoking, and assumes vaping is a path to smoking for young people.  And it condemns tobacco companies for “infiltrating” the EC industry, totally missing that if tobacco companies move in that direction, over time they will move out of manufacturing coffin nails.

The report makes perfectly clear that the Digance committee wants to strangle the EC industry at near-birth so it doesn’t grow and corrupt Australia’s youth.

Indeed, the report effectively convicts ECs as highly dangerous even though the jury is still out and despite the weight of evidence in their favour continuing to grow.  It’s already scientifically clear that the chemical cocktail of e-cigarette vapour is far, far less harmful than tobacco smoke, both for direct users and those passively exposed to it.  But this reality hasn’t washed with the committee’s MPs.

The bottom line is the Digance committee members want to do what MPs everywhere revel in doing: legislate for the sake of legislating.  Stuff the potential of ECs to do good for people’s health and the healthcare bottom line, bugger the mounting scientific evidence: just get on with clamping down because the Australian public health establishment, abetted by the tobacco control fanatic faction at the World Health Organisation, says they must.

In contrast, last year a report by British government body, Public Health England, reviewed the evidence and concluded vaping is up to 95 per cent less harmful than smoked tobacco.  Action on Smoking and Health UK is on board with vaping. Even the most institutionally-socialist organisation in the Western world, the National Health Service, is embracing ECs in taxpayer-subsidised quit smoking programmes.

In the UK and Europe, therefore, both government and anti-smoking groups embrace ECs, with or without nicotine, as quitting aids and demonstrably low-risk alternatives to the deadly weed.  While acknowledging evidence is still accumulating, in Britain vaping is getting the benefit of the doubt and being promoted, not prohibited. That is a truly sensible and harm reductionist approach to regulation on the basis that every smoker who weans themselves off their ciggies and taking up vaping is doing themselves a favour.

But back to puritan Australia, where Simon Chapman and Mike Daube dominate public health debate in a largely uncritical media and denigrate those disagreeing with them, including fellow public health experts who see the merits of ECs as harm reduction aids.

Nobody is saying e-cigarettes are risk-free, nor that they shouldn’t be regulated.  What’s important, though, is that South Australia doesn’t simply follow the example of Queensland’s disastrous Newman government and over-regulate, just to be on the safe side and to avoid offending the Great God Simon.

What’s needed instead is light-touch regulation tempered by common sense.  Put limits on e-cigarette points of sale and marketing by all means, especially ensuring they aren’t pitched at children and teenagers.  But clamping down on their access and use so heavily that smokers see no reason to ditch their ciggies is not only counter-productive, it’s stupid.

For a start, don’t treat ECs as quitting aids available only through chemist shops.  They should be sold wherever tobacco cigarettes can be sold, so smokers have a real competitive choice that may significantly reduce threats to their health.  If, as the Digance committee recommends, e-cigarettes are sold only through specialist shops under heavily restrictive conditions, that largely would defeat the purpose of having them on sale at all.

And when it comes to passive exposure and vaping in public places, why can’t common sense prevail rather than blanket regulations?   In pubs and clubs, for instances, why not just let operators use their discretion as to whether vaping is permitted on their premises?  As long as patrons and employees know the score it’s really a matter for them, not the full force of the law and nanny bureaucrats.

As for when and when not to vape, not only common sense but common courtesy should apply.  Vapers shouldn’t assume the right to vape wherever they want and bugger everyone else: in return for lighter regulation, they have an obligation to the rest of us not to blow their vapour in our faces without compunction and seek permission from those around them.  Sometimes hyper-enthusiastic vapers are their own worst enemies, all but inviting the nanny state to crush them.

Now the Digance committee’s reported, the Weatherill government in South Australia must decide next steps on ECs.  Hopefully, it won’t rush into legislating, but instead consult further, look at what’s happening elsewhere in Australia and, especially, in Britain, and ask itself one simple question: if vaping can further reduce smoking rates, improve health outcomes and reduce healthcare costs, can it be sensibly rather than excessively regulated?

Sensible regulation based on common sense.  If you expect that from Australian politicians, let alone a Labor state government pressured by the Australian public health establishment, you’re smoking something other than tobacco.

Terry Barnes is a health policy analyst and former senior Howard government adviser. He is working with UK think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, on personal harm reduction issues

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26 Responses to Guest Post: Terry Barnes – Don’t over-regulate e-cigarettes

  1. struth

    Name me one country that is more of a nanny state than Australia.

  2. Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    The reason for the lack of comments is simply that the article is so sensible that no comments are necessary. A job well done.

  3. I am the Walras, Equilibrate, and Price-Take

    The biggest mistake the manufacturers made was to call their product an ‘e-cigarette’.

    The bed-wetters go nuts at the thought of a cigarette. No matter that it is a completely harmless product, the bed-wetters can’t see past the label.

    If they’d just called it a ‘vaper’ and said ‘it allows the ingestion of non-toxic flavoured steam into the lungs’ we wouldn’t have anywhere near the problem we have in getting them allowed in this country.

    I am so, so sick of living in this fracking idiocracy. But given that we’re stuck with having dumbc**ts all around us, we have to learn how to play the game of getting past them without their even knowing we were there.

  4. Jude

    This is what sensible regs look like http://dickpuddlecote.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/slaughtering-sacred-cows.html#disqus_thread

    In Australia we have morons for politicians, and nasty little pinch mouthed puritans in tobacco control, that cannot see past their own snouts. It is a bizarre situation where you can buy tobacco cigarettes everywhere, but you cannot buy an orders of magnitude safer alternative. A person becomes a criminal for simply wanting to choose their own way to give up smoking, rather than filling the pockets of pharma companies, and government coffers.

  5. Tel

    Can you get an e-Pipe? I wanna look like Sherlock Holmes, or possibly Ted Johnson… either of those would be OK.

  6. struth

    Australians have been “getting around things ” forever.
    It’s getting impossible now, and a nation won’t survive with that outlook.
    We must fight them.

  7. Baldrick

    Can you get an e-Pipe?

    You certainly can and they’re Australian made.

  8. Baldrick

    Sensible regulation based on common sense.  If you expect that from Australian politicians, let alone a Labor state government pressured by the Australian public health establishment, you’re smoking something other than tobacco.

    Excellent article with a realistic ending.

  9. Pedro the Ignorant

    With wowsers like Daube and Chapman constantly bellowing and roaring about “the public good”, the nanny state’s first reaction to anything that incurs the wowsers’ disapproval is to immediately ban it, impose draconian penalties and stifle any discussion as to the possible merits of the banned item.

    I have said it before, Australians are very obedient people and will allow their liberty to be slowly but inexorably crushed as long as these modern day Puritans are given all this uncritical airtime.

    Excellent post from Terry Barnes. Well done, sir.

  10. Gab

    I know of four people who gave up a 20 – 30 cigarette habit by using e-cigs. And now two have easily stopped the e-cigs as well. E-cigs are able to deal with the physical as well as psychological addition to cigarettes in a way that the nicotine replacement therapy drugs cannot.

  11. Richard H

    Terry, let me add my thanks for your excellent piece.

    I just have a question, though: My previous reading on this led me to believe all e-cigarettes contained nicotine, but your article says not. Given that nicotine is harmful (albeit nowhere near as harmful as the tars and other crap in tobacco), there was at least some case to be made against nicotine-containing products. But what argument can be mounted against nicotine-free e-cigarettes? Cheers, Richard.

  12. Some History

    “……there was at least some case to be made against nicotine-containing products.”

    Are you suggesting a case to be made against potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, green peppers, black tea?

    http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/extract/329/6/437
    http://www.cbsnews.com/news/eating-nicotine-containing-produce-like-peppers-tomatoes-may-lower-parkinsons-risk/

  13. Baldrick

    Given that nicotine is harmful (albeit nowhere near as harmful as the tars and other crap in tobacco), there was at least some case to be made against nicotine-containing products.

    Nicotine No Worse Than Cup Of Coffee – Report.

  14. Hello Richard H

    You can get vaping liquid which is essentially flavoured water. In Australia it is illegal to get it with nicotine – but you canb if ciurse lawfully buy nicotine in “tobacco prepared and poacked for smoking”.

    What an irony!

    But because vaping is about mimicing the smoking action and sensation as much as getting a nicotine fix, it can have a placebo effect on the brain, as well as deal with many smokers’ smoking simply to do something with their hands.

    My view is that nicotine-containing liquid should be openly available for vaping in Australia, as in the UK and most of the EU. Nicotine in moderation is about as addictive as a strong morning flat white. I wrote about it in The Australian last month:

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/not-quite-the-time-to-extinguish-debate-on-ecigs/news-story/b6622bdf70d718a842e9d3539ec3bfba

  15. Reilly

    I disagree with the part of the article that says people should be allowed to vape effectively whenever.

    If you have seen how much “smoke” can come from these vapers, then i’m not sure how you can endorse using them in public places like this.

    Treat them the same a cigarette users in terms of their ability to smoke in public places.

  16. Tel

    You certainly can and they’re Australian made.

    Hmmm, thanks for that. I feel some learned gesticulation coming on.

  17. Baldrick

    Reilly
    #1957234, posted on February 25, 2016 at 5:29 pm
    I disagree with the part of the article that says people should be allowed to vape effectively whenever.
    If you have seen how much “smoke” can come from these vapers, then i’m not sure how you can endorse using them in public places like this.

    For crying out loud, it’s friggin vapour/steam.

  18. Deb

    An excellent summation, thank you. The majority of the so-called research relied upon has long since been de-bunked, the fact of which seems to have eluded the pollies involved in these recommendations.

    South Australia had a reputation for being progressive, and I really hoped for a progressive outcome from this committee – alas I was disappointed.

    Meanwhile in the UK, we have the following briefing regarding e-cigs for Stop Smoking Services
    http://www.ncsct.co.uk/usr/pub/Electronic%20cigarettes.%20A%20briefing%20for%20stop%20smoking%20services.pdf

    what a bizarre world we live in 🙂

  19. Arnost

    Trying not to derail the thread – I’m assuming it has run its course…

    Terry if you are still around: In 2013, did the GP copayment you advocated to Abbott recommend that we put the money into a medical research / innovation fund?

    I gots to know !!! [please 🙂 ]

  20. Arnost: a medical research fund never entered my mind, nor should it have entered the mind of any policy adviser with an ounce of politcal judgment. It was all, I understand, the PMO’s doing.

  21. Arnost

    Thank you Terry.

    Coz when I heard the about the proposed GP copayment I thought “brilliant on so many levels”… A superfund to defray the ever increasing / future medical costs; reduction in unnecessary GP visits allowing them to pay attention to real illness; a positive budget impact etc.

    But when Hockey announced the innovation / research thingamabob angle – OMG! I just knew that the idea was killed in an instant and worse – doomed to not likely be resurrected in my lifetime!

    Whoever came up with that agile and innovative twist should be hung drawn and quartered in public- (NADT – figuratively speaking).

  22. Stimpson J. Cat

    E-cigarettes are a ridiculous case of false advertising.
    They are clearly not cigarettes, and they also do not contain ecstasy.
    They are the transgenders of the tobacco world.

  23. Richard H

    I wasn’t clear enough in my use of the word “harmful” in relation to nicotine, so I should make myself clear.

    Sure, some foods contain natural nicotine, and presumably there is no risk from nicotine if those foods are consumed in any normal quantity. But as the article comparing nicotine to coffee says (quoting a GP): “There is some evidence that shows that it may increase the risk of heart disease and also potentially increases your blood pressure.” Presumably much the same could be said about caffeine.

    If the nicotine in an e-cigarette is about as risky as the caffeine in a cup of coffee (ie, only trivially), then it is basically riskless in the quantities that most people consume. On that basis I would see no justification for banning – or even regulating – nicotine-laden e-cigarettes, at least for adult consumption.

  24. James

    I guess the question is what can I do now or is it just a case of sit on our hands and hope for the best?
    Is there petitions to sign, members to call/email or demonstrations planned?

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