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General Business Motion, Precautionary regulation of e-cigarettes protects young Australians, 25 February 2021

It’s my great pleasure to rise and support the motion put forward by Senator Griff. I also want to commend the very strong contribution made by Senator Sheldon. Senator Canavan mentioned and called for proper regulation of e-cigarettes, and that is exactly what this government is doing. The motion is so important that I want to read it out to the Senate so that those who are listening to this debate can appreciate the importance of this motion and why it’s so critical to support it. Not only does Senator Griff, in his motion, note ‘the tobacco industry has a vested interest in promoting e-cigarettes’; we heard from Senator Sheldon, who articulated the money trail between a number of provaping organisations and big tobacco. The motion further notes:

… reports in the Weekend Australian Financial Review that the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) under former CEO Russell Zimmerman received funding from big tobacco to lobby to legalise e-cigarettes and formed the Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association (ARVIA) in September 2019;
The motion:

… welcomes the decision under the ARA’s new CEO Paul Zahra to close down ARVIA and walk away from its contract to lobby for e-cigarettes because the money was channelled from Philip Morris International;
As both Senator Griff and Senator Sheldon have pointed out in this debate, this was not disclosed to our Senate Select Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction.

The motion notes the recent Senate committee inquiry asked each witness to state whether they had ever received tobacco industry funding. Some groups, such as the Brisbane based National Retail Association, provided submissions advocating the benefit of e-cigarettes but declined invitations to give evidence. That’s very important. The reason this is important is that they would have then been forced to answer the question as to whether they had received very significant funding from the tobacco industry. They gave a misleading submission to our inquiry, because they fundamentally declined, and I would say covered-up, the fact that they had received very substantial funding from big tobacco.

The last part of the motion supports the findings of our inquiry’s majority report that ‘Australia has taken a sensible approach to vaping’. The absence of conclusive clinical evidence as to both the health effects of e-cigarettes and the efficacy of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool supports the conclusion that there is no case to weaken Australia’s precautionary approach to the regulation of liquid nicotine. That is fundamental. That is what our government is so concerned about. That is why we are implementing, as a government, sensible regulation, just as Senator Canavan called for. We obviously have a difference of view as to what that might be, but I am very proud to have been a part of this majority report, which adopts the government’s position that we must take a precautionary approach.

I was speaking to someone the other day about what’s going on in the United States. Vaping is everywhere. Young kids on university campuses everywhere across the states are vaping. It is insidious. There is deep and warranted concern that this is a gateway not just to tobacco but to other more serious drugs.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration, the independent regulator, made the decision on 21 December 2020 that from 1 October 2021, consumers importing nicotine will require a doctor’s prescription to legally access nicotine e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine. Child resistance closures for liquid nicotine will also be mandatory. This is not a ban on nicotine. The TGA’s decision follows extensive public consultation and is consistent with the existing ban in all states and territories on the sale of nicotine e-cigarettes without a doctor’s prescription.
The TGA’s decision bridges a regulatory gap between state and territory law regulating nicotine e-cigarettes and the Commonwealth law regulating their import. The TGA decision-maker’s reasons for the decision included:

… to mitigate the potential uptake of smoking in young adults who would otherwise be at low risk of initiating nicotine addiction.

The introduction of a novel nicotine delivery system may have a negative impact on tobacco control and may renormalise smoking. The TGA was also concerned:
… that exposure to nicotine in adolescents may have long-term consequences for brain development, potentially leading to learning and anxiety disorders.
The TGA was also concerned about the unknown toxicity of long-term exposure to heated and inhaled chemicals, and the risk of accidental exposure to children, particularly in relation to liquid nicotine.

The Morrison government, in consultation with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the Australian Medical Association and other medical experts will be developing a telehealth smoking cessation item that will be available six months prior to the implementation date, 1 October 2021. As part of this work, the government will provide $1 million for an education campaign, focused on smoking cessation.

Major healthcare professional and consumer education programs are also scheduled for later in the year, to inform people about the changes. The previously proposed Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations prohibiting the importation of e-cigarettes containing vaporiser nicotine—that is, nicotine in solution or in salt or base form—and nicotine-containing refills without a prescription from a GP will not be proceeding due to the significant overlap with the TGA decision. What our government has put forward, supported by the TGA, the highly credentialled independent regulator, is sensible, responsible regulation.

I want to also reference an article by The Australian Financial Review’s Neil Chenoweth on 20 February. There is some very good journalism in this article, where he reveals the money trail and the connection with big tobacco, particularly Philip Morris. I quote:

The revelations that Philip Morris was secretly funding the push to legalise e-cigarettes undercuts claims by vaping advocates that legalisation would destroy the business model of tobacco companies.

We know—even from the evidence received in our inquiry—that that’s not true. This is the great panacea, the great way forward, for the tobacco companies. They see vaping as their next great big commercial opportunity. This is why they are funding these vaping advocacy groups. They are driving their next revenue stream, as they have done in other parts of the world. That is going to lead to more harm and to a greater addiction for those who take up smoking and perhaps other drugs. I mentioned before the deep concern about the gateway effect of e-cigarettes. The article goes on:

“The tobacco industry has a long history of funding third-party front groups to do their dirty work and help drive ongoing revenue streams, which is what is happening now in Australia,” says Tanya Buchanan, CEO of Cancer Council Australia.

That is the basis on which the Retailers Association board cancelled the contract with Burson Cohn & Wolfe, recognising that this was not in the best interests of the organisation or the retailers it represents. Paul Zahra said:

The ARA has taken a strong position on this issue under my leadership. We don’t believe the advocacy of vaping products are in the best interests of the wider retail industry. Nor is it an appropriate use of ARA resources.

So these pro-vaping advocacy groups have been caught out. They didn’t have the guts to front our inquiry because they knew they would have to give evidence and tell the truth as to how they were funded. As I say, I am very proud of the work that we’ve done and I would recommend that all Australians read our majority report, including the additional remarks which I made, where I canvassed a number of additional recommendations. I want to briefly reference those. I started by saying that, as the majority of the members of the Senate Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction found:

… a prescription based model provides the best pathway to strike an appropriate balance between providing treatment options for long term smokers under medical supervision while protecting against the legitimate risk of uptake of e-cigarette use from non-smokers, particularly young Australians …
It is also appropriate that decisions around regulation and access to medicines and poisons are made by an independent health regulator, on public health grounds, such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

The reason the TGA has taken this precautionary approach—and this is a point I want to reference in relation to Senator Cananvan’s contribution—is that the evidence is limited. That is absolutely crucial. I continued:

The current limited evidence regarding efficacy of e-cigarettes, the unknown long term risk of e-cigarettes and legitimate concerns around the uptake of e-cigarettes amongst non-smokers warrant a precautionary approach to this issue.

This is entirely consistent with other nicotine replacement therapies which make health claims. It also adopts a conservative approach, initially, to the availability of new products making therapeutic claims, which is a proper and sensible approach.
I now want to briefly reference a number of recommendations that I made in my additional remarks in the majority report. The Commonwealth should ensure that telehealth under Medicare is universally accessible for smoking cessation to assist smokers to quit. I was very pleased that the government has implemented that measure. The Commonwealth government should immediately review the affordability of nicotine replacement products and move to list more of these products on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, in line with medical evidence, because, if people are wanting to stop smoking, we want to give them every support we possibly can. Upon application, and subject to the usual public health assessment processes, the TGA should consider reviewing the classification of liquid nicotine to enable it to be sold in pharmacies without a prescription. That’s a recommendation I put forward subject to the TGA’s assessment. Obviously, adopting the medical model, if the TGA believes that this is appropriate, it is also open to the TGA to recommend the slightly broader accessibility of e-cigarettes and liquid nicotine through pharmacies. My final recommendation was that we should introduce legislation consistent with other countries which requires tobacco companies to mandatorily disclose details of expenditure, including on tobacco and nicotine marketing.

I commend the motion brought forward by Senator Griff today. I’m very proud of the majority report and I recommend that all Australians read it.

25 February 2021

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