The media hype over the just-released report on vaping by the Australian National University’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Public Health (NCEPH), is yet more hysterical shroud waving by those in the public health establishment.
The report was commissioned by outgoing Minister for Health, Greg Hunt who, with the stridently vocal encouragement of Australian public health poohbahs, has cracked down on nicotine vaping, making it prescription-only rather than a retail product. To be fair, Hunt is convinced he’s done right, but he has been fed one-sided advice from bureaucrats, public health activists, and the medical lobby, whose collective attitude to reducing smoking and nicotine dependence has always been their way or the highway.
As for Labor, they are on a unity ticket with the Coalition in their hostility to vaping and vapers. Expect no difference if Labor wins the election.
You don’t need to read the report: its doom-laden press release is enough.
It says vaping pumps a great number of toxins and other dangerous substances into the human body (the actual quantity of which is irrelevant); vaping can cause permanent physiological damage or death; young people are being enticed into a vaping habit that eventually leads to smoking. In short, NCEPH contends vaping’s useless, addictive, and dangerous, and therefore should be totally suppressed.
That some of those reported dire consequences are extremely rare, or occur when vaping solutions are home-brewed or tampered with, are bushed-aside inconvenient truths.
The report also dismisses vaping as a quitting aid for smokers, concluding more than half of adult vapers are also smokers. That most ‘dual users’ have heavily cut down on far deadlier combustible tobacco ciggies, is ignored. No room for nuance here.
NCEPH’s stark picture reflects the official government line on vaping, but leaves key questions unanswered:
Why doesn’t it compare the relative risks of nicotine vaping to the obvious and logical commodity, tobacco cigarettes and their deadly chemical cocktail of tobacco smoke?
Why does it presume Australia got it right on controlling nicotine vaping by imposing de facto bans, and why do sister countries Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, which see vaping as an integral part of their anti-smoking public policy strategies, have it wrong?
Besides liberalised nicotine vaping, what else accounts for the accelerated decline in smoking rates in those countries, while Australia’s has virtually flatlined in recent years? Isn’t the answer nothing?
Why does this report diametrically oppose conclusions of more authoritative overseas bodies including the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Public Health England, UK Cancer Research, Action on Smoking and Health, the Cochrane Collaboration, and the National Institute of Clinical Excellence – including the RCP’s well-known conclusion that, in relative health risk terms, vaping is at least 95 per cent less harmful than smoking?
Once, Big Tobacco was deservedly condemned for ignoring, distorting, manipulating, and cherry-picking evidence; making sweeping but unsubstantiated claims; and smearing critics. Now the industry is, rightly, forced to justify everything it says and does, and cannot afford to play such disreputable games with the body of scientific evidence relating to the harms of tobacco smoking.
Public health poohbahs are under no such constraints in demonising vaping. Their groupthink similarly cherry-picks, sensationalises, ignores evidence to the contrary, smears dissenters, exploits public prejudices, and, additionally, indulges their own ingrained paternalist instinct to prohibit and punish. Politicians across the spectrum, afraid of being vilified as ‘anti-health’, don’t dare cross them. Even if politicians actually disagree, even querying the prevailing view is not worth the political cost. Instead, they vie with each other to be the more zealous suppressor of vaping, with or without nicotine.
If only policy-makers were allowed to question the quality of, and biases in, the advice and evidence they get. Instead, the likes of the NCEPH report, and related hyperventilating media coverage, make it much harder to have a balanced public conversation about the risks, benefits, and proper regulation of vaping. Australia’s making nicotine vaping prescription-only, for instance, stigmatises not just the product but the user: those reluctant, or feeling ashamed, to see a doctor to get their vapes will look to a thriving black market with dodgy, unregulated, solutions likely to contain dangerous additives, or home-brew their own concoctions.
The simplest way of overseeing nicotine vaping products is obvious. Legitimise them as restricted retail products, just as cigarettes are. Prohibit and punish their sale to minors. Impose enforceable product standards on vaping solutions and delivery devices. And join our overseas counterparts in integrating vaping into federal and state anti-smoking strategies, instead of vilifying and ostracising them and their users.
Tobacco companies are forced, by public opinion as much as commercial realities, to confront the irrefutable evidence against their health-destroying products. The same principle should apply, in reverse, to public health opponents of vaping. It is they – however well-intentioned – who play fast and loose in presenting the evidence on vaping – and, indeed, with the truth – to dismiss the disruption vaping causes to their long-settled mindset, and suppress the mounting positive evidence of its risks and benefits.
The tragic irony is those opposing vaping support the very thing they rightly want to eradicate – combustible cigarette sales. A Pyrrhic victory of ideology over common sense if ever there was one.
There are roughly half a million vapers in Australia. If even a fraction of them says, ‘I vape and I vote!’ even just a couple of hundred furious vapers in a close seat might affect the election result. Both the Coalition and Labor are foolish to have treated these voters with contempt, and it would serve them right if angry, politically-motivated vapers caused their chances of winning to go up in a puff of steam.
Terry Barnes edits the Morning Double Shot newsletter. As a consultant, he has advised advocates and industry on vaping regulation and policy.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.