Flat White

Vaping, Big Public Health and the new McCarthyism

13 July 2017

5:54 PM

13 July 2017

5:54 PM

One of the more emotive arguments thrown up against e-cigarettes and vaping is that multinational tobacco companies, including Philip Morris International, Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco, are eyeing the vaping market as a source of future profit.

That was highlighted on Thursday by a Fairfax Media yarn that revealed Philip Morris emailed its consumer contacts, suggesting they make personal submissions to a House of Representatives committee inquiry into the use and marketing of electronic cigarettes and personal vaporisers in Australia.

‘They’ve been actively recruiting people to put in submissions’, anti-smoking rent a quote, Professor Simon Chapman, told Fairfax Media. Chapman accused Philip Morris and other interest groups of ‘astroturfing’ – trying to create the illusion of a big grass-roots pro-vaping movement that does not really exist.

That anti-vaping advocates like Professor Chapman effectively are tainting any personal consumer testimony to the inquiry, by implying they were making submissions on behalf of Big Tobacco, was not queried by the Fairfax story.  To impugn the integrity of ordinary smokers and vapers who want to share their stories is shameful, but typical of the McCarthyist ad hominem attacks regularly levelled against supporters of vaping as a tobacco harm reduction innovation: not just in the snake pit of social media but in scientific circles where reputations are trashed for daring to question the tobacco control orthodoxy.

By way of disclosure, Professor Chapman regularly has attacked my participating in the vaping debate over the last three years, particularly questioning my accepting a fellowship from a British free-market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs to look at personal choice and nanny state issues, including vaping, in Australia and New Zealand.  That I am not told what to think or write by the Institute of Economic Affairs, or their donors whoever they may be, doesn’t stop the accusations that I’m a stooge of Big Tobacco.  Throw enough mud and it sticks.

I put myself out there in the media and accept I’m fair game for the likes of Professor Chapman and Professor Mike Daube, who successfully agitated for the opera Carmen not to be staged in Western Australia because it was set in a cigarette factory.  But not so those ordinary punters who have switched to vaping by their own choice to reduce or stop smoking.  These people don’t lightly come out of the woodwork, but this is a big thing for them.

Like me, they share views unpalatable to the public health wowsers: vaping is almost certainly a far lower risk activity than tobacco smoking, the scientific evidence in its favour is mounting, and that if we are serious about harm reduction we should follow Britain, Canada and New Zealand and legalise nicotine vaping on a sensibly regulated basis, not prohibit it as Australia does now.  That they’re prepared to declare themselves should be respected, not denigrated.

How they became aware of the inquiry is neither here nor there.

At first blush, however, the default position of Professor Chapman and his fellow public health lobby accusers against Big Tobacco is understandable.  After all, tobacco manufacturers’ businesses have long relied on the nicotine dependency of smokers.  The steep decline in developed world smoking rates over decades has shrunk what once were huge cigarette markets, and as public companies they need to provide reasonable returns to their shareholders and investors.

Of course, tobacco companies have done themselves no favours over the years.  Since initially denying the links between smoking and lung cancer, when the Royal College of Physicians in 1962 (which last year also concluded vaping is a low-risk tobacco harm reduction choice at least 95 per cent safer than smoking) and the US Surgeon-General in 1964 concluded otherwise, the industry fought strenuously against tobacco control every step of the way.  Most recently, we have seen the industry challenge Australia’s tobacco plain packaging legislation, including taking action in international forums including the World Trade Organisation: against which Philip Morris itself fought a rearguard action that on adjudication will cost it tens of millions of dollars in costs.

Even when Big Tobacco may be on the right side of the argument, as with plain packaging (in the sense there is as yet no concrete evidence that plain packaging has affected Australia’s smoking rate, which has flatlined since 2013 according to the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data), they still fail in the court of public opinion.

Certainly, many enthusiastic vapers and vaping advocates themselves are wary of tobacco companies and their motives for becoming involved with vaping.  Many if not most public health academics, scientists and bureaucrats are virulently hostile to the tobacco industry, historically with good reason and more than partly because Big Tobacco is so easy to demonise.

Instead of Professor Chapman and his supporters demonising tobacco companies’ pursuing vaping markets, however, their interest in getting out of making and distributing cigarettes should at least be taken by the critics at face value.

If pro and anti-vapers share a common vision that tobacco smoking is bad, surely we all want the manufacture and sale of cigarettes eventually to wither and die.  If relatively safe if mildly addictive nicotine can be dispensed profitably to consumers more safely than coffin nails, including in the Third World where smoking remains rife, then that trade should be encouraged, not shut down before it starts.  Surely, if tobacco companies want to wind down and phase out their combustible cigarette business and move into vaping, that is a desirable public policy goal as well as making commercial sense.

Furthermore, developing and improving vaping technology needs serious ongoing research and development investment. Tobacco companies that see their traditional products – and longer-term survival – as suddenly less viable have an economic incentive, very deep pockets and strong enough balance sheets to sustain significant R and D efforts, both to improve vaping technology but also to fund the ongoing scientific studies needed to fully validate the benefits, risks and value of vaping and tobacco products compared to combustible tobacco, and its impacts both on users and bystanders.

A leading tobacco control researcher, the late Michael Russell, wrote as far back as 1976, ‘People smoke for the nicotine but die from the tar’.  Eventually snuffing out the deadly cigarette industry by promoting safer alternatives for a nicotine fix, therefore, is a good thing.  Demonising ordinary people because they don’t agree with you is not.

Terry Barnes made a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into vaping. Nobody told him to.

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