There are few things governments enjoy more than protecting the commoners from themselves. It’s the reason why they’re happy to spike up taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. They’re even considering sugar now! If Jesus and Jenny Craig aren’t watching, don’t you worry – Big Brother surely is and Big Brother is keen on his big, fat paycheck. Unfortunately, Big Brother isn’t just an over-zealous do-gooder. He’s also prone to fits of incompetence that would make Beavis and Butthead feel embarrassed.
Take this master-stroke of genius – If you’re an Australian smoker who trades his or her carcinogenic and tar-loaded cigarettes for an electronic system that serves you nicotine dissolved in water vapours without the toxic chemicals, you’re also potentially a criminal.
Despite extensive research showing that over six million adults in the European Union have successfully quit smoking by switching to electronic cigarettes and the recommendation of nicotine vaping as a quit-smoking aid by of 15 of the UK’s prime public health authorities, the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) decided earlier this month to keep nicotine solutions on Schedule 7 of the Australian Poisons Standard. They cannot be legally sold in any states or territories – a status they share with an illustrious and eminent crowd that includes cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
But why do our (mostly taxpayer-funded) public health authorities and government agencies hate vaping so much? Is it because of vaping’s association with trendy hipsters who have better beard game than the average public service busybody? More probably, it could be because of the juicy tax revenue potentially lost when people give up their cancer sticks.
The official storyline is that vaping nicotine could serve to ‘renormalise’ smoking. Translated from code: the practice might make smoking appear ‘trendy’ and ‘cool’ again, defeating the purpose of those gnarly pictures of diseased organs you find on the plain packages at your local tobacconist. Perhaps there was some merit to the hipster idea after all. The nannies of the nanny state are also worried that we ‘simply do not know’ the long-term risks of this new electronic boogeyman. But let’s consider what we do know.
There are no studies which have directly linked nicotine itself to cancer – by contrast, multiple studies have linked everyday products ranging from meat to milk with cancer. Nicotine is a non-pharmaceutical stimulant which satiates the cravings of tobacco smokers. Cancer Research UK has described nicotine vapours as far safer for passive smokers than tobacco smoke. Nicotine solutions smoked or rather ‘vaped’, have been legal for sale in countries ranging from the USA to the UK to those of the EU for years. During that time, they’ve been taken up almost exclusively by former smokers seeking a safer alternative and not by previous non-smokers seeking a hip, new fad. In the US, both teenage and adult smoking have declined at a rapidly faster rate since e-cigarettes were introduced c. 2010 than in the years previous, If there is a way for tobacco addicts to get their fix in a way that definitively cuts their risk of cancer at the very least, then how does it make sense to deny them access to that alternative?
Where the dark unknown isn’t enough, creative and imaginative use of conjecture can come in handy. Consider the TGA drawing a link between nicotine solutions and ‘accidental poisoning’ by citing a study that included trivial exposures to the solution as ‘poisonings’ and went as far as to describe one person’s intentional injection of an entire phial of nicotine into their bloodstream as an ‘accidental death’. This is comparable to describing someone jumping off a building because they really wanted to know what the ground felt like as an accident.
I’ve never tried smoking and I don’t intend to. My vices are largely limited to a few Bundies over the weekend and the occasional punt. But if I was a millennial who did and wanted to vape for my fix, the status quo wouldn’t phase me much. Why? Because of the miracle that is the Chinese black market – where I can easily order 99 per cent pure nicotine solution online. If I wanted to, I could snort the entire thing through a 1000 yuan note while watching a Game of Thrones marathon downloaded for free off ‘the Pirate Bay’ using a Virtual Portable Network (VPN) to bypass any government filters trying to stop me. Because the lessons learnt during the prohibition hold especially true in an age of technology and connectivity where the kids are usually three steps ahead of you at any time. Allowing consumers to purchase a safe, regulated version of the product at their nearest retailer seems to be a slightly wiser option.
With cancer and other smoking-related illnesses currently some of the leading causes of death in Australia, one might ask when the government plans to prioritise a proven harm reduction strategy. The answer resoundingly seems to be “Over our dead bodies” – and the bodies of a bunch of dead smokers too.
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