Some tobacco control activists are so blinded by a commitment to destroy the tobacco industry that they can’t see the potential of a life-saving, harm reduction alternative, e-cigarettes. The absurdity of allowing the widespread availability of the most dangerous consumer product ever invented while effectively banning a much safer substitute defies logic and will only protect the incumbent cigarette trade. Yet this is what some activists are advocating.
A federal parliamentary inquiry on e-cigarettes is under way and a Senate inquiry is about to begin shortly based on a bill submitted to the Senate last week. Tobacco control activists want to leave the regulatory framework now in place unchanged, preventing the use of e-cigarettes in Australia.
Policy should be based on evidence, not fear mongering, exaggeration, misrepresentation of evidence and rhetoric. Most importantly, any assessment of vaping should be compared with the risks of smoking, which vaping is designed to replace.
E-cigarettes have only a tiny fraction of the risk of smoking. It is well known that almost all the harm from smoking is caused by the products of combustion, which are absent from vaping.
Claims that the widely accepted view that e-cigarettes are 95 per cent less harmful than smoking is based on guesswork is a misrepresentation of the comprehensive reviews by Public Health England and the UK Royal College of Physicians which arrived at this estimate after reviewing the published scientific evidence including chemical analysis of e-cigarette vapour, toxins measured in users and clinical trials. The college said: “Although it is not possible to estimate the long-term health risks associated with e-cigarettes precisely, the available data suggest that they are unlikely to exceed 5 per cent of those associated with smoked tobacco products, and may well be substantially lower than this figure.”
The levels of toxins in vapour are substantially lower than in cigarette smoke and according to Public Health England, “there is no doubt that smokers who switch to vaping reduce the risks to their health dramatically”.
One study found that more than 6 million smokers in the European Union alone reported using e-cigarettes to stop smoking and a further 1.5 million have quit using this method in the United Kingdom. E-cigarettes are now the most popular quitting aid in the United Kingdom and United States.
Should e-cigarettes be banned until long-term safety data is available? By this impossible standard, no new drug or treatment would be allowed until 20 or 30 years of continuous testing. While we do not yet know everything about these products, we know enough to be sure they are much safer than smoking. Just like with new medicines, decisions to market products are based on the best available, inevitably incomplete, evidence. We should act on what we know now, not be paralysed by unrealistic expectations.
Vaping products are consumer goods designed to replace an existing, far more harmful, consumer product. As such, they can be effectively managed by existing consumer laws, which would regulate quality and safety, advertising, sales to minors and restrictions on use. On the other hand, Therapeutic Goods Administration regulation would impose onerous and expensive barriers to the industry.
The involvement of the Tobacco industry is no argument against e-cigarettes. Big Tobacco has been forced to compete in this market to avoid becoming redundant from this new technology. There is no evidence that the tobacco industry wants people to smoke and vape. The priority should not be to destroy the tobacco industry, but rather to save lives and improve public health. The tobacco industry may be part of the solution if it is encouraged to move out of selling tobacco cigarettes and into less harmful alternatives.
Banning e-cigarettes is counterproductive to good public health outcomes.
Traditional tobacco control strategies have served Australia well for many years. However, adult smoking rates have stalled in Australia over the last three years for the first time, while continuing to decline in other countries where e-cigarettes are widely available. Innovative solutions like e-cigarettes are now required to kick start progress once again.
The lives of many thousands of Australian smokers depend on it.