The much-anticipated House of Representatives committee report on e-cigarettes and personal vaporisers – in other words, vaping – was tabled on Wednesday.
Very predictably, the majority of MPs came down in favour of the status quo: we don’t know the long-term risks of vaping with nicotine; it’s better to crack down on it now and severely restrict or suppress it by precautionary regulation, and the regulatory status quo is the correct approach. At 5-3, however, it wasn’t an overwhelming majority.
But three Liberal MPs – chairman, former NSW Liberal president and key Turnbull supporter Trent Zimmerman, high-profile Tim Wilson and medical doctor Andrew Laming, broke from the pack to dissent.
That’s a pretty influential trio, and a committee chairman standing up in the House to reject his own committee’s findings was a rare occurrence indeed.
In responding to Zimmerman, deputy chairman and majority leader, Labor’s Steve Georganas, said ‘I would have preferred…to have nicotine e-cigarettes evaluated by independent health experts and not politicians. I don’t think we’re in a position to make scientific judgments on what is harmful and what isn’t’ – and then declared what he said was the ‘conclusive evidence’ on nicotine and tobacco. That essentially was the majority position: don’t rock the public health establishment’s boat. They know best.
Overall it’s a measured and carefully-written majority report, impossible for pro-vaping advocates to dismiss it out of hand. Nevertheless, it’s patently obvious the Liberal and Labor MPs in the majority were reluctant to question the Big Brother intellectual dictatorship of some Australian tobacco control opinion leaders and most public health organisations. Assertions and statements made by Australian public health and tobacco control pooh-bahs were accepted as fact in the report, while Australian and overseas pro-vaping expert views, and favourable regulatory practices in Britain and elsewhere, were given a thorough working over. A reverse cultural cringe if ever there was one.
That nasty ad hominem attacks made in evidence by Australian public health pooh-bahs, impugning the integrity of authors of authoritative UK analyses positive about vaping – including an expert working group of the very Royal College of Physicians that first blew the whistle on the link between smoking and lung cancer back in 1962 – were repeated needlessly in a report protected by parliamentary privilege was particularly unnecessary and disgraceful.
On the other hand, if I had a quid for every time the majority report approvingly, even lovingly, cites Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman and his colleagues, my bank manager would be very happy.
But in truth, the majority report’s recommendations aren’t so awful. The principal recommendation of a comprehensive, National Health and Medical Research Council-supervised independent expert review of the benefits and risks of nicotine vaping could be effective if (and it’s a big if), the expert reviewers truly are independent, and any review committee has a balance of experts, adequate time and budget and, above all, is impartial. Fat chance of that happening in Australia, one must think.
Indeed, the intellectual thuggery and intimidation practised by various tobacco control Torquemadas seems to have had its effect No heresy has been spoken by the majority. And for Liberal MPs in that group, Health minister Greg Hunt passionately declaring mid-inquiry that nicotine vaping would never be legalised ‘on my watch’ also would have weighed heavily with them: one MP signed the majority report without actually having attended any hearings or participating actively in the inquiry, and another almost as little.
Hunt is entitled to his ministerial view, but his so unequivocally declaring the Government’s hand makes the dissents by Zimmerman, Wilson and Laming even more impressive and remarkable than their simply sticking it to an overbearing public health establishment. Openly contradicting a Cabinet minister isn’t a great career move for ambitious backbenchers capable of higher things. But Zimmerman and Wilson, in particular, considered the personal career risks, were active and enthusiastic in the inquiry, and at took the trouble to turn up at committee hearings – unlike some of their colleagues. What’s more, they were prepared to consider evidence and expert opinion for as well as against nicotine and vaping, and make on-balance rather than politically correct or convenient conclusions.
That three influential Liberals have stood up for liberalisation, effectively in defiance of the party whip, is very significant. Thanks to them, vaping prohibitionists have failed to slam shut the reform door. Instead, the anti-vaping majority outcome is like the winner in a close party room leadership challenge: the result encouraging the losers to persevere because it is not decisive enough to put this issue away indefinitely. After Wednesday, tobacco harm reduction reform is still on the national policy agenda.
All three dissenting Liberals can be proud of putting their values and principles above personal ambition. And when it comes to the clearest, no-nonsense parliamentary report on record, Andrew Laming’s two-sentence dissent says it all:
Life is short and smokers’ lives are shorter. Legalise vaping now.
Terry Barnes is policy consultant and fellow of the UK Institute of Economic Affairs, with a special interest in nanny state regulation.
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