Australia may be on the verge of loosening its restrictions on vaping with nicotine, after years of tamping down the hopes of vapers.
Among English-speaking and most other western countries, Australia’s prohibition of nicotine-based vaping products is an outlier. The United States, United Kingdom, European Union countries, Canada, and New Zealand all allow nicotine in e-liquid and closed-system vapes with nicotine.
Now the Liberal Party, which holds a majority in the nation’s parliament, is showing signs of reversing its opposition to vaping, which could portend an end to the country’s ban on nicotine (except in cigarettes and pharmaceutical cessation products).
Greg Hunt, the health minister who once said that nicotine vaping would never be legalized “on my watch,” has been pressured by other party members into allowing independent research on the health evidence on vaping. According to The Guardian, several MP’s pushed for the inquiry, saying there is widespread support for legalizing the products.
The study may be done by the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, according to the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA). ATHRA board member and University of New South Wales public health associate professor Colin Mendelsohn says the organization “sees this as a positive first step towards legalising the use of nicotine for vaping in Australia.”
According to Dr. Mendelsohn, two-thirds of Liberal Party MP’s are in favor of legalization. MP Trent Zimmerman has been the “main driver of change,” according to ATHRA. Zimmerman chaired a parliamentary inquiry earlier this year that advised against legalization, but Zimmerman issued a dissenting report, disagreeing with his own committee, which is very unusual.
“While the evidence base regarding e-cigarettes is still emerging, there are clear indications that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to human health than smoking tobacco cigarettes,” Zimmerman said in his dissenting report. “If long-term smokers who have been unable to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes switch to e-cigarettes, thousands of lives could be saved.”
The call for a scientific inquiry comes after the Western Australia state Liberal Party passed a resolution in August calling for the legalization of nicotine vaping. Although that move has no legal effect, the ATHRA says it showed the Liberals are moving in a positive direction.
It also comes after the shocking news that Australia’s smoking rate has flatlined, while the countries that have allowed vaping with nicotine have seen huge drops in smoking prevalence. That is despite plain packaging of cigarettes, and taxes that make Australian cigarettes the most expensive in the world.
“Australia is doing everything right in terms of tobacco control, but one key difference with the UK and USA, where smoking rates have dropped, is our hostility to e-cigarettes,” said Alex Wodak, director of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation and ATHRA board member.
The opposition Labor Party isn’t changing its position though. Labor health spokesperson Catherine King asked if Health Minister Greg Hunt is “caving into big tobacco, the loudest advocates for e-cigarettes who stand to profit from their legalisation?” Labor will follow the advice of government drug regulators, she told The Australian.
But changing minds in Australia may be as hard as changing the law. Vaping advocates here are met with a constant barrage of invective from powerful opponents. Pressure on the government to maintain the ban has been led by the ultra-prohibitionist wing of Australian tobacco control, notably emeritus Prof. Simon Chapman. Chapman has high media visibility, and he isn’t shy about using it to confuse the public about the role of the tobacco industry in the vaping movement.
Previous Australian inquiries into vaping have been influenced by Chapman and his followers, who have aligned with like-minded vaping opponents in the Australian Medical Association to push back hard at any suggestion that smokers could be offered a safer choice. In 2017, when the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration reaffirmed its rule that nicotine was a controlled substance, Chapman gloated and claimed that the decision was a blow to the tobacco industry, his favorite bogeyman.
“The tobacco industry will unanimously condemn this decision,” said Chapman. “This is all anyone needs to know about why it should be welcomed.” Of course, tobacco companies sell no vape pens or e-liquid in Australia. And their most popular products — cigarettes — remain perfectly legal there.
Perhaps the majority party’s call for a new vaping inquiry is a turning point. Maybe Australia will turn a corner, and join most of the world in recognizing that banning a product that’s meant to replace a much more dangerous one is backwards and self-defeating.
“Australia cannot insulate itself from the rest of the developed world forever,” wrote Christopher Snowdon last year. “The glaring success of vaping in getting large numbers of smokers off cigarettes cannot be ignored indefinitely. Whatever Australia chooses to do with e-cigarettes will not stop vaping being a success in other countries.
“Chanting the words ‘big tobacco’ over and over again will not change that. Describing vapers as ‘astroturfers’ and ‘trolls’ will not disguise the fact that e-cigarettes have the support of many respected doctors and medical organisations. The magic words are losing their power. The trick is getting old. The spell is wearing off.”