E-cigarettes: Why punish Aussies for what British and Americans do successfully?

Clive Bates,?? former Director of Action on Smoking and Health in the UK, is in Australia to support efforts to legalise e-cigarettes.

Clive Bates,?? former Director of Action on Smoking and Health in the UK, is in Australia to support efforts to legalise e-cigarettes.

Legalising e-cigarettes in Australia could make smoking obsolete and save lives, a British electronic cigarette advocate is poised to tell a parliamentary inquiry in Canberra this week.

Clive Bates, a former director of Action on Smoking and Health in the UK who claims to have no financial links with the tobacco industry, believes vaping products could lead to "one of the greatest public health wins of all time".

In the UK, where e-cigarettes are legal, there is some consensus that smokers should be encouraged to use the devices as a quitting aid. But Australian experts largely want the ban to remain in place.

"It's shocking that Australians are breaking the law and suffering punitive fines if they try to quit smoking using electronic cigarettes," he said.

"Why punish someone for doing what millions of Brits and Americans have done successfully and feel good about, causing no harm to anyone else?"

It is legal to buy "vaping" devices, but it is unlawful to sell, possess or use ones containing nicotine because the chemical is classified as a poison.

This year the Therapeutic Goods Administration rejected an application to exempt the drug from the dangerous poisons list.

With smokers increasingly trying vaping products, the Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport is considering the role of e-cigarettes in smoking cessation. Experts remain divided.

In its submission, the Australian Medical Association said e-cigarettes should never be allowed to become a "socially acceptable alternative to smoking" given the uncertainty about their safety and efficacy as cessation aids.

"Nicotine is extremely addictive, a fact the tobacco industry has capitalised on for decades," it said.

"The growth in e-cigarette products has provided opportunities for sections of the tobacco industry to re-brand themselves as part of the effort to reduce smoking."

And the Public Health Association of Australia warned that if the ban was lifted, smoking behaviour may become "re-normalised". It said the best way to quit was to go "cold turkey".

"We are aware that there are many individuals who believe ardently that e-cigarettes are the best way to quit, although we are also aware that there have been widespread efforts to generate submissions to this effect, including from the tobacco industry," it said.

But Mr Bates, now a director of consultancy firm Counterfactual, said in the UK, the government had moved from scepticism to endorsing the idea of switching from smoking to vaping.

"England's official 'Stoptober' quit-smoking campaign even recommends switching to e-cigarettes in TV ads currently on air," he said.

"Banning e-cigarettes is sometimes dressed up in the language of the 'precautionary principle', but when you have almost 3 million Australians doing something we are certain is very harmful, then banning an alternative is more reckless than it is cautious."

E-cigarette supporter, Associate Professor Colin Mendelsohn, from the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW, said smoking rates in Australia have not changed over the last three years for the first time in decades.

"Based on a recent US modelling study, if most Australian smokers switched to e-cigarettes over the next 10 years, up to 500,000 smoking-related deaths could be averted," he said.

Last year, Mr Bates was accused by the UK's The Times of receiving funding for e-cigarettes research and that his work had been tainted by the industry's influence. This was found to be incorrect, and The Times apologised.

"I'm used to accusations about tobacco companies, but it's just cheap smears and mainly from people who would rather avoid debating the issues," he said.

"I'm not saying anything different to the UK's Royal College of Physicians about e-cigarettes and tobacco harm reduction, and most of what I will say here in Australia will draw on their work."

He said his trip was privately funded and he has no conflicts of interest.

"I did a detailed submission to the inquiry and was invited for cross-examination," he said.

"We've also arranged meetings with interested public health professionals, officials and politicians."

This story E-cigarettes: Why punish Aussies for what British and Americans do successfully? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.