It took a while, but yesterday there was a strange burst of rationality from the ship of fools also known as the Coalition party room.
Months after receiving a parliamentary committee report on nicotine e-cigarettes, in which both the Liberal chairman and leading Liberal member extraordinarily dissented from their own committee’s negative report, health minister Greg Hunt is daring the wrath of the public health puritanical pooh-bahs in agreeing to commission an independent expert inquiry. That inquiry will soberly and impartially sift and advise on the clinical and scientific evidence for and against e-cigarettes as an aid to quitting smoking and reducing the grave harm from tobacco risked by millions of Australians every day to satisfy their nicotine cravings.
After party room pleas from the committee dissenters, New South Wales wet Trent Zimmerman and libertarian-minded Tim Wilson, as well as converts to the vaping cause James Paterson and Eric Abetz, Hunt agreed to an inquiry which, according to The Guardian Australia report of the meeting, might be undertaken by the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. This would ensure the task is not entrusted to compromised authorities that have long declared their pro-suppression hand, notably the government’s Therapeutic Goods Administration and the National Health and Medical Research Council.
This is a major advance for a minister who last year declared that ‘never on my watch’ would there be any softening of the official hostility towards nicotine vaping, and who has stood idly by as supposedly pro-individual freedom and choice states New South Wales and, currently, South Australia, regulated to suppress both the access and use of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, and to treat their users as social pariahs. Since Zimmerman and Wilson’s embarrassing dissent, however, to his credit Hunt has at least sought out pro-vaping experts to counterbalance prevailing puritanical pooh-bahs like Big Public Health’s very own witchfinder-general, Sydney University’s Simon Chapman. Now the pragmatic Hunt commendably has been prepared to compromise and be seen as not having completely closed his mind.
Having agreed to an expert review, which can draw on analyses and inquiries in the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada and New Zealand as well as Australia, Hunt must now ensure that the review itself is truly independent and impartial. For a start, the institution and those experts actually conducting the investigation must be acceptable to both pro- and anti-vapers, so nobody can claim a stitch-up from the start. It also should involve international experts to ensure the baleful influence of the monolithic Australian public health establishment is diluted. And it should not, as former health minister Peter Dutton once did for a COAG policy review of vaping regulation, allow any work contracted out to assist the inquiry to be done solely by strident anti-vapers like Chapman.
After long having led the world in tobacco control, headline smoking rates in Australia have flatlined for most of this decade. As pro-vaping professor and clinician Colin Mendlesohn has pointed out, in South Australia and New South Wales net smoking rates actually are increasing. Yet in the same period, UK smoking rates have crashed, in large part due to the easy availability of legal nicotine vaping. If current anti-smoking measures have stalled, including tobacco plain packaging and eye-watering tobacco excise increases that feed Treasury’s revenue addiction but don’t deter determined smokers, it is nuts not to consider new, disruptive approaches like commercially-available nicotine vaping.
It therefore is bizarre that the Australian public health establishment, including the Australian Medical Association (to which risk-averse health ministers and shadow ministers listen deferentially just as New York shopkeepers listened to Don Corleone when offering his ‘protection’), stubbornly denies the validity of any evidence that’s positive about the health effects of vaping, or shows that vaping is not ‘re-normalising’ smoking or proving a gateway for young people to take up the deadly weed. When they can’t easily attack the evidence, these pooh-bahs are not averse to ad hominem attacks on those who dare dissent from their pooh-bah pontifications. No doubt they now will accuse Hunt of caving into the pro-vapers.
Additionally, those states and territories, notably South Australia, itching to join the heavy-handed vaping suppression herd for fear of pooh-bahs wrath, should stay their hands while this inquiry proceeds. If he truly wishes this inquiry to be seen as impartial, Hunt should insist they do, as he should have done while the Zimmerman-chaired parliamentary inquiry was proceeding.
If by accepting this party room compromise Hunt also is hinting that he is prepared to defy the likes of the AMA in the public interest, that is a welcome message for the conduct of health policy generally. Even if it’s the indications of likely electoral defeat liberating the minister’s thinking, hopefully it’s an indication that however long the Coalition government has left – and the possibility of another term isn’t yet lost – he and the Morrison government won’t simply pander to the bullying of the doctors’ trade union and a posse of self-important public health pooh-bahs who loathe the Coalition and all it stands for, and would never vote Liberal in a Marxist pink fit.
Terry Barnes is a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK, and was a senior adviser to two Howard government health ministers.
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