Senate Inquiry rejects legislation to legalise nicotine for vaping

Posted by DrMendelsohn on 14 September, 2017

Senate.jpgThe Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee released its report on the Vaporised Nicotine Products Bill 2017 today (available here). While recognising the Bill’s intent to allow e-cigarettes as a legal alternative to combustible cigarettes, the committee concluded that there was not enough scientific evidence available to legalise vaping with nicotine:

‘The committee recommends that the Senate does not pass the Bill until further scientific evaluation of the efficacy and safety of e-cigarettes and related products has been undertaken.’

The result is disappointing, but not unexpected given that all government health departments, the TGA (Therapeutics Goods Administration), the National Health and Medical Research Council, public health organisations (Cancer Council, Heart Foundation, Public Health Association) and all medical organisations (such as the AMA, the Royal Australian College of Physicians, the Thoracic Society are opposed (except the RANZCP).

Furthermore, accepting tobacco harm reduction is a big shift in Australia and the abstinence-only traditionalists will take time to get use to the new paradigm.It’s interesting that the UK, US, EU, Canada and NZ all are satisfied with the evidence, but in Australia it is not sufficient.

The committee received conflicting evidence on the safety and effectiveness of e-cigarettes, which made it difficult to see a clear path forwards at this stage. Apart from safety concern, opponents raised the usual arguments such as the risk of uptake by young people, the renormalisation of smoking, child poisoning, the risk to bystander, doubts about effectiveness and the risk of high concentrations of nicotine to users.

The good news

The good news is that the committee left the door open for review when further scientific evidence is available. Scientific research and overseas experience is rapidly accumulating and continues to point to a positive impact from vaping on overall public health,

I am confident that further evidence of safety and effectiveness will be demonstrated in the not too distant future and will meet the federal government’s requirements for changing the legislation.

In any case, the fact that there was an Inquiry is a big win for vaping supporters. A parliamentary inquiry would have been unimaginable a year or two ago and is a strong signal of a change in momentum in this important debate. Support is growing in a number of organisations. E-cigarettes are now on the agenda.

Some surprising comments

Curiously, the committee felt the Bill gave rise to human rights concerns. I would have thought that the right of smokers to a healthier alternative was an important human right as well.

Also surprisingly, the committee was concerned that e-cigarettes were not consistent with Australia's harm reduction approach and international obligations. This is puzzling, as tobacco harm reduction is one of the three pillars of Australia's National Tobacco Strategy but is virtually non-existent at present. Also, tobacco harm reduction is mandatory for Australia as a signatory to the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, but is supported only in principle, but not practice.

Another concern was that exempting nicotine from the Poisons Standard would remove it from the oversight of the TGA as a therapeutic good. However, e-cigarettes are not therapeutic goods and do not make therapeutic claims. They are a consumer product designed to substitute for a much more harmful consumer product, lethal tobacco cigarettes. The consumer's needs are best managed under existing consumer law. The TGA has no role here.

The committee was also concerned that if legislation allowed the sale and use of nicotine, that would clash with state and territory laws which make nicotine illegal. However, the state laws on 'poisons' almost always follow the federal rulings, so it should not be difficult to organise a common position.

Finally, the committee raised the need to consider the overall impact that e-cigarettes may have on population health, including non-smokers. A number of studies have modelled the overall population effect of e-cigarettes and concluded that there is a net gain for public health.

The House of Reps Inquiry

Meanwhile, the lower house Inquiry into the Use of Electronic Cigarettes and Personal Vaporisers in Australia is currently ongoing and is making a more comprehensive assessment, hopefully later this year. We await the outcome of that Inquiry with great interest.

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