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