Over three million Australians continue to partake in one of the most deadly habits around.
Although smoking rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades, the last national survey found that 15.6 percent of the adult population are still lighting up.
Two out of every three smokers will die from a smoking-related disease, which means that well over two million Australians are currently facing an early death. Each year, smoking kills around 15,000 people in this country, translating to 41 preventable deaths every day.
The social and economic costs are astronomical. Tobacco-related diseases and deaths result in 31.5 billion taxpayers dollars going up in smoke every year.
The Australian government says it is committed to reducing the smoking rate to 10 percent of the population by next year, which begs the question as to why it’s continuing to deny people one of the most effective means of kicking the habit.
A deadly ban
Nicotine-containing e-cigarettes are still outlawed in this country. While e-cigarette devices are legal, the liquids available on the market don’t contain the highly addictive substance, nicotine. And it’s the presence of that drug in cigarettes that keeps smokers puffing away.
So while inhaling – or vaping – blueberry flavoured liquids might serve to alleviate one’s desire for bubble gum, it’s hardly going to satisfy a long-term smoker’s craving for that nicotine fix they can get at the end of a paper butt.
So much safer, it’s murder
“E-cigarettes are dramatically less harmful than smoking,” Colin Mendelsohn, associate professor at the UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine, said. He explained that “almost all the harm” from cigarettes is caused by the smoke, which e-cigarettes don’t produce.
The tobacco treatment specialist pointed out that the Royal College of Physicians and Public Health England has estimated that e-cigarettes are 95 percent less harmful, than their non-electronic counterparts.
According to Dr Mendelsohn, the levels of nicotine contained in vaping liquids are around 1 to 3 percent. “With normal use at these levels, nicotine has only minor health effects,” he explained. “The main chemicals present in e-cigarettes only have not been associated with any serious risk.”
Quitting in droves
Nicotine is one of the most highly addictive substances around, and once hooked, many can’t give it up.
Australians who can’t stop, and have a habit of inhaling the substance, are currently forced to do so in a manner that will lead to their early demise. However, in countries like the US and the UK, where nicotine-containing e-cigarettes are readily available, millions are quitting smoking.
“In the European Union over 6 million smokers reported having quit using an e-cigarette and a further 1.5 million have quit in the UK,” Mendelsohn said. He added that early clinical trials of e-cigarettes found them “at least as effective as nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches and gum.”
A gateway to smoking?
The 2014 Australian Secondary School Students’ Use of Tobacco report found that around 5 percent of Australian students aged 12 to 17 smoke. The Australian Medical Association argues that nicotine-containing e-cigarettes have the “potential to act as a gateway to tobacco smoking” for young people.
However, the word internationally is to the contrary. “Overseas experience suggests that vaping is replacing – rather than encouraging -smoking of tobacco cigarettes among young people,” Dr Mendelsohn told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.
“Smoking rates in young people are falling faster in countries where e-cigarettes are readily available,” he continued. Indeed, in the United States, teenage tobacco use is at an all-time low. And the use of e-cigarettes amongst teenagers has also dropped, suggesting it was only experimental.
Australian nicotine laws
The ban on nicotine-containing e-cigarettes is by default. Under the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) classification system, nicotine is listed as a schedule 7 dangerous poison, making its use and possession illegal.
However, nicotine-containing tobacco, gum and patches are legal. “Paradoxically, the current Australian laws ban a less harmful form of nicotine intake – e-cigarettes – while allowing the sale of the most lethal form of nicotine delivery – tobacco cigarettes,” Mendelsohn said.
In August last year, tobacco harm reduction organisation New Nicotine Alliance made a submission to the TGA proposing that nicotine liquids with a concentration of below 3.6 percent be removed from schedule 7, which would effectively legalise them.
But in February this year, the TGA rejected the application. The regulator argued that legalising low concentration nicotine liquids could have a negative impact on tobacco control and re-normalise smoking.
The refusal to lift the ban is supported by all Australia’s nine health departments, as well as peak medical bodies.
There doing it across the ditch
In March this year, the New Zealand government announced it was legalising nicotine-containing e-cigarettes in an attempt to rid the country of smoking by 2025.
NZ associate health minister Nicky Wagner said, “Scientific evidence on the safety of e-cigarettes is still developing, but there’s a general consensus that vaping is much less harmful than smoking.”
The NZ legislation will include heavy regulations regarding the products. E-cigarettes won’t be sold to people under the age of 18. Advertising will be restricted. And people won’t be able to use them in smoke-free environments.
The Senate inquiry into the Use and Marketing of Electronic Cigarettes and Personal Vaporisers in Australia is currently under way. Leading doctors told the committee at a round table held in Sydney last month that it was time for the products to be legally available on the market.
But resistance to nicotine-containing e-cigarettes seems to be well-entrenched within Australian medical institutions. Dr Mendelsohn puts this down to the 50 year battle against tobacco products that’s had a major focus on the elimination of nicotine addiction.
E-cigarettes are a harm reduction method that eliminates the need to inhale smoke for those who have a nicotine addiction. In effect, they save people’s lives, but do nothing to cure that addiction. This idea does not sit easily with some.
Dr Mendelsohn said there’s a belief reducing the harms associated with a bad habit, implies acceptance of it. But, this is the wrong attitude to take. “We need to look objectively and dispassionately at the evidence and be willing to change our minds,” he concluded.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.