Ban on nicotine 'will do us more harm than good'. The Australian

Posted by DrMendelsohn on 26 November, 2017

This article published in The Australian today by Adam Creighton
  

The Australian.JPG

 12:00AM November 27, 2017

  • By Adam Creighton

You don’t have to be a medical insider to understand that smoking a substance that causes cancer is a lot more damaging than smoking one that doesn’t. 

Yet health authorities here, by threatening to put people in prison for possessing nicotine, have in effect banned electronic cigarettes, which offer a much safer way for addicted smokers to get their nicotine hit. It’s the nicotine that’s addictive, apparently (I wouldn’t know, having never smoked), not the tobacco, which can kill you.

This is a shameful stain on Australia’s otherwise excellent reputation for public health policies. Sure, we may find in 20 years that e-cigarettes have a horrible side effect, but so may mobile phones and we’re not banning them.

About 15,000 Australians die a year from smoking-related illnesses and about 110 die from overdosing on over-the counter tablets that contain codeine.

Guess which product the federal government is restricting from February next year? That’s right: people with runny noses and toothaches are going to have to traipse off to the local doctor to get a script (which will cost Medicare $37.05 each — thank you, taxpayers) for drugs as dangerous as Demazin and Panadeine. Remember, folks: methadone injecting rooms are OK but, by golly, don’t dare buy an e-cigarette.

Reflecting the seemingly united view of the Australian public health advocacy establishment, three top anti-smoking campaigners, including renowned academic Simon Chapman, recently sug­gested to a Senate inquiry into e-cigarettes that Britain, whose government tolerates three million vapers, was a global outlier. It is in fact Australia that stands out in its approach to e-cigarettes. The British health department took the unusual step of writing to correct the record, as reported by The Australian last week.

New Zealand, Canadian and British health authorities have all recognised that encouraging hard­ened smokers to shift to vaping reduces the damage of smoking cigarettes by about 95 per cent. Nicotine for personal vaporisers, another name for e-cigarettes, are legal in all states of the US too. In 2014 the EU reversed bans on e-cigarettes in member countries, including Finland. It’s a no-brainer, really.

Here, possessing nicotine carries fines of up to $45,000 and jail terms of two years. The Queensland government even calls on citizens to dob in anyone caught with an e-cigarettes. Don’t forget to call 13QGOV if you see someone trying to reduce their risk of cancer.

When did “do no harm” become “do no good”? What explains this bizarre obsession with keeping illegal a product that could reduce the incidence of cancer among hardened smokers for whom patches and willpower haven’t worked?

It’s all about the children, apparently, or at least the teenagers.

“The Australian Medical Association is concerned that e-cigarettes are promoted and marketed in a way that is clearly very appealing to young people,” AMA president Michael Gannon wrote in a recent letter seen by The Australian.

The evidence is patchy but increasingly shows that if teenagers try e-cigarettes, few turn into regular tobacco smokers. I’m closer in age to teenagers than our baby boomer health warriors and I can assure them vaping isn’t cool. No one thinks they look like James Dean, even if they don’t know who he was, by sticking a weird plastic device in their mouth, having stocked up on sachets of liquid. The appeal has shrivelled considerably.

Other candidates for the government’s opposition are more sinister. No country is more addicted to tobacco taxes than Australia. The government will siphon $11.6 billion out of smokers’ pockets this year. That’s on average about $3870 a year from the nation’s three million smokers — an extraordinary slug on typically lower income people when wages are barely rising. Abor­igines smoke at about twice the rate of other Australians.

At $26 a standard pack, cigarettes are more expensive in Australia than in any other country, according to the international price comparison website Numbeo. They are about three times the price of a pack in the US, where the smoking rate is only slightly higher than in Australia.

You don’t need to be professor of economics to realise we’re beyond the point where tax in­creases reduce smoking rates.

Yet the tax is set to ratchet up further, to $15.2bn by 2021 or twice the forecast budget surplus (don’t hold your breath for that, mind you), suggesting the nation’s smokers are doing more work than anyone to balance the numbers. The windfall doesn’t end there, either. Dying about 10 years earlier than nonsmokers, smokers save the government more than $200,000 each in age pension payments.

The third candidate is an atavistic hatred of tobacco companies, whose desire to sell nicotine and e-cigarette devices irritates public health campaigners.

“Let’s be clear: if their goal is to improve the health of smokers, the tobacco industry should simply stop selling their products,” Gannon writes, noting “the tobacco industry had sought to influence the inquiry”.

Stop press: a company wants politicians to let it sell stuff. So what? The validity of arguments hinges on their merits, not on who is making them. It’s ridiculous to righteously call for firms to stop selling cigarettes, which are perfectly legal, yet prevent them from switching to safer products. Tobacco giant Philip Morris has even called for a “smoke-free future”, announcing it wants to stop selling cigarettes: “Smokers are looking for less harmful yet satisfying alternatives to smoking. We will give them that choice,” it says on its global website. Well, they won’t in Australia, where cancer-causing cigarettes are preferred.

By the way, companies aren’t living things: they don’t pay tax, they don’t think or make any decisions. The people who own and run them do. Whatever evil Philip Morris or British American Tobacco perpetuated in years past, such as covering up the harm long-term smoking was doing, can’t be sheeted home to the present crop of staff or shareholders.

Perhaps the federal government could manufacture and sell vaporisers, or at least tax them at high rates to offset the loss of tobacco excise.

Current Australian policy implies the certainty of older people dying sooner is better than the possibility younger people take up e-cigarettes and switch to tobacco. It’s hardly a utilitarian dream.

From the Aztecs to the Chinese, smoking one thing or another has been around for centuries, if not thousands of years. If people want to smoke nicotine then the government should at least permit options that are less likely to kill them.

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