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Application to legalise low strength nicotine for vaping in Australia rejected. Now our real battle begins! - Nicotine Science and Policy

Attila Danko

Application to legalise low strength nicotine for vaping in Australia rejected. Now our real battle begins!

Attila Danko | 6 February 2017

The New Nicotine Alliance, Australia, (NNA AU) last year submitted an application to Australia’s medicines and poisons regulatory authority, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), to legalise vaping with nicotine as a consumer product. The application was to exempt from Schedule 7 nicotine at concentrations of 3.6 per cent or less for self-administration with an electronic nicotine delivery system ('personal vaporiser' or 'electronic cigarette') for the purpose of tobacco harm reduction. On February 2nd this application was totally rejected in the TGA’s interim decision. Interim decisions are rarely reversed at the final decision.

In many ways, Australia is the ideological and political world centre of the opposition to tobacco harm reduction. The Australian tobacco control establishment has maintained one of the strongest ideological oppositions to vaping in the world, and many of it’s leading figures play a major role in international organisations with an anti-tobacco harm reduction position. Prior to the existence of the NNA AU in Australia there was little or no dissent to the idea that e-cigarettes are entirely damaging to public health. The myth that they are simply a plot by Big Tobacco to hook children on to lolly flavoured vapour, in order to create new long-term customers, was simply assumed to be the only reason for the existence of e-cigarettes. There was therefore little opposition to banning them outright, and anyone with a different position was assumed to be paid by Big Tobacco and therefore to be ignored under threat of the political risk of associating with a despised pariah.

However, since our establishment in July 2015, the NNA AU has worked hard to reframe the debate to provide a counterpoint to the prohibitionist dogma that previously prevailed. We got stories into the media about consumers who had massively benefitted via this new technology, and created alliances amongst harm reduction organisations and professionals involved in helping people quit smoking. Slowly but surely the media started to ask us and our allies for the other side to the story. We also met personally with many politicians to explain the great public health opportunity that tobacco harm reduction represents. Eventually there was enough understanding in the community about vaping that we felt it was time to go directly to the regulators and request a regulatory solution through a change in the scheduling, or classification of nicotine. Nicotine is currently in Schedule 7 of the Poisons Act, which includes substances like arsenic and cyanide that are highly controlled, require specific licensing and which attract severe penalties for unlicensed sale, use and possession.

We always thought our chances of winning this battle were slim. The prohibitionist dogma, although now robustly challenged, still prevails in the corridors of power. Seven of the 17 submissions opposed to legalising nicotine were from Australian health departments. Most public health, medical organisations and powerful health charities are in lockstep with the tobacco control establishment. But the attempt was a necessary first step, with the possibility that it might effect a real change.

Of course that hope was dashed. However, this action coincided with a major media figure and celebrity who planned to come out publicly as a vaper and in full support of our application on the same day. Joe Hildebrand, who is on TV every night, writes articles daily for Australia’s largest media organisation and has 78,000 Twitter followers (the main Australian vaping opponent, Simon Chapman, has 9000) admitted to being a criminal for quitting smoking, in one of the most viewed articles in Australian news that day. It was a powerful article, with his personal story, and was rapidly re-tweeted countless times by other media personalities, politicians and opinion leaders. Other media and radio stories followed.

This seems to have caused a paradigm shift in the way vaping is reported by the mainstream media. The separate AAP story, equivalent to Reuters, that also widely went out through all media outlets reporting the TGA decision said in it's first line: "Doctors warn more smokers will die and suffer preventable diseases after the medicines regulator decided to maintain a ban on nicotine e-cigarettes."

This is unprecedented, with previous coverage being almost entirely negative. The AAP story quotes prominent tobacco harm reduction campaigners and only briefly and weakly mentions the anti-harm reduction position at the end.

We have lost this small battle with the regulators, but we have had a major victory in terms of hearts and minds. The Australian tobacco control prohibitionist orthodoxy is starting to crumble, exposed for the hollow, immoral and cruel shell that it is, that would rather see recreational nicotine be as harmful as possible and for smokers to die, if it would promote their unachievable abstinence-only project of a nicotine-free world.

If we had won a minor "victory" with severe restrictions it may have been worse, because we might have been stuck with practically unworkable quasi-legalisation, which took the wind from the sails of popular outrage. Social media was in a frenzy reporting the injustice of this decision and fomenting outrage not only among vapers, but many other non-vapers as well.

Our plan is now to go forward with this paradigm shift we have achieved in the way vaping is viewed in Australia, to build political support for sensible legislation that is fit for purpose. The groundwork has been done. The increasing numbers of vapers, their friends and families are growing more outraged every day and we have allies in every major political party and every media outlet.

What we have done so far will be dwarfed by what we are about to do. We have now a powerful coalition in place, with powerful and influential people passionate to drive this campaign forward. I am convinced we will win this campaign for a legislative solution, through Federal Government to change the laws so that so many Australian smokers’ lives can be saved.

This also has repercussions for the rest of the world. If the nicotine prohibition cannot prevail in the ‘Ground Zero’ of their project, where else could they? This will undermine the prohibitionist position world-wide. It will become increasingly unfeasible, as consumers worldwide take matters into their own hands, regardless of unworkable and immoral laws that would see them forced to smoke cigarettes, instead of use cleaner sources of nicotine. A victory for tobacco harm reduction here in Australia is critical. We could then see the reality of a rapid global end to the smoking epidemic through the obsolescence of cigarettes.