Tuesday 21 June 2016

Guest post: State government not seeing the light on vaping

Australian anti-wowser Terry Barnes recently wrote an article about e-cigarettes for the Herald-Sun which is behind a paywall. I'm reprinting it here with his permission...

As its disregard for public opinion and due process over East West Link, sky rail and the CFA’s enterprise bargaining agreement show, the Andrews Government does things its way.

The government’s modus operandi is now very well established. Consult minimally or not at all, make decisions affecting significantly the lives of Victorians, then announce them to a supposedly grateful state as “fair and reasonable” — because the government itself says so. Public opinion and evidence to the contrary are brushed aside, as the government knows best.

While not on the scale of its high-handed treatment of CFA volunteers, the government is currently following that MO as a nanny state regulator by introducing new tobacco control legislation last month. As well as having a further go at smoking and smokers, however, this new legislation worryingly cracks down on what the government portrays as a new health danger: using electronic cigarettes (ECs) vaporising flavoured water-based solutions, or “vaping”.

Health Minister Jill Hennessy says the government “is taking a precautionary response, by regulating e-cigarettes in the same way as tobacco products” to “protect kids from e-cigarettes”. Beyond that, however, she says “all existing bans and restrictions on the sale, use and promotion of tobacco products will also apply to all e-cigarettes in Victoria”, whether or not they contain nicotine — and most don’t, as the sale of ECs containing nicotine is illegal. While Nanny Jill believes she’s acting responsibly by lumping vaping with smoking, the government conveniently ignores a growing weight of authoritative scientific evidence and expert opinion on ECs’ harm reduction and quitting value for smokers and bystanders, indicating that while their steamy vapour may be an intrusive nuisance to others, it has almost negligible health risks compared with smoking.

What does the damage in traditional cigarettes is not the nicotine — relatively harmless in moderation — but the blue smoke itself, a cocktail of tars, trace metals and toxic chemicals. EC vapour doesn’t contain anything like the same chemical mix. What looks like steam mostly is.
While citing the views of government agency VicHealth and the Cancer Council of Victoria, Ms Hennessy hasn’t mentioned two recent British reports assessing ECs as invaluable quitting aids for smokers and at least 95 per cent safer than combustible tobacco.

One was published last year by tobacco control experts for Public Health England, a government health agency. The other, released in April, is a compelling study by the UK Royal College of Physicians, one of the most respected medical organisations in the world. Both conclude ECs have health and lifesaving potential that can’t be dismissed and question claims ECs “renormalise” smoking, or give young people a new gateway to a tobacco habit. But their conclusions are dismissed by Australian public health authorities like VicHealth and anti-smoking crusaders like academic Simon Chapman.

In other words, science and experts are far from decided on vaping and restricting people’s behaviour and choices by the Andrews Government should be based on more definitive evidence.

Instead, Ms Hennessy’s legislation follows Queensland’s lead in virtually suppressing the easy availability of potentially safer, harm-reducing vaping while deadly coffin sticks remain readily available. While Australia restricts and bans, however, vaping gets the benefit of the doubt in the UK: indeed, British Prime Minister and reformed smoker David Cameron, and the National Health Service, embrace it as a smoking-combating innovation.

What’s more, a national policy review of e-cigarette regulation is under way and due to report to federal and state governments later this year. So why the rush for Victoria to legislate now?
Nanny state legislation of any kind must always be scrutinised very closely, as once passed it’s rarely wound back. So instead of simply ticking and flicking the government’s rushed crackdown on e-cigarettes and vaping, parliament instead should facilitate informed public debate on the legislation. Ms Hennessy’s claims about the need to treat ECs the same as burned tobacco must be tested openly and genuine, and inclusive consultation with experts, consumers and the Victorian public should take place.

With Labor lacking an Upper House majority, non-government parties should ensure a full inquiry. Opposition health spokeswoman and Upper House leader Mary Wooldridge should insist on such an inquiry before the Coalition takes a position on this Bill.

If this legislation passes unchallenged, its heavy-handed regulation, intended to protect people’s health, could harm them by making smoking more acceptable than potentially far safer alternatives.

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