Hollie Hughes was not particularly interested in giving up smoking, and had no idea about vaping. But since nicotine e-cigarettes became a hot button issue in June, the NSW Liberal senator has become somewhat of a vaping evangelist.

“I won’t go back to cigarettes at all,” she says.

Senator Hollie Hughes has swapped smoking for vaping, and hopes to be off nicotine entirely early next year.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

In Australia it is illegal in every state and territory to sell e-cigarettes that contain nicotine. It is also illegal to possess them without a prescription everywhere but South Australia. But people have been able to import liquid nicotine products with relative ease from countries such as New Zealand and China.

In a bid to halt the importation, Health Minister Greg Hunt introduced in mid-June a bill to ban imports and fine people who breached it more than $200,000.

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The move came without party room consultation, and caught backbenchers off-guard. In response, 28 Liberal and National MPs signed an open letter to Mr Hunt, urging him to back down.

Those who signed the letter included Senator Hughes, Eric Abetz, Trent Zimmerman, George Christensen and Bridget McKenzie. They argued the change was “too rushed” and risked sending people back to smoking combustible cigarettes. Mr Hunt delayed the proposed ban following the backlash.

It was the moment Senator Hughes decided to investigate vaping.

“For me, it started as a freedom of choice issue,” she says.

Many products containing nicotine, including lozenges, gum or patches are available at supermarkets, she thought, so why not e-cigarettes?

It appeared as if Australia was heading towards a prescription-based model, and as she began her project Senator Hughes realised Australia would be the first country in the world to implement such a regime.

Although it was less than two years since Parliament’s health committee had written a report on e-cigarettes, Senator Hughes, a social smoker, thought an investigation into tobacco harm reduction was needed.

She set about going through the process of trying to get a prescription herself to “find out what it’s all about”.

After an hour-long consultation with a doctor who was approved to prescribe the products – a consult that included a mental health chat, and discussions about nicotine strengths and e-cigarette models – Senator Hughes came away with a prescription.

At the time of our interview, she has gone 97 days without a cigarette and saved more than $2500 by not buying her $58-a-pack cigarettes.

“I had zero intention of quitting,” she says, adding her sense of smell has improved and she has no cravings. “I have zero want, need, desire for a cigarette at all, in fact the thought of one makes me feel quite ill.”

Late in December the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced its decision to move to a prescription model for nicotine e-cigarettes, which will come into effect on October 1, 2021.

Hollie Hughes checks the label of a liquid nicotine bottle during the tobacco harm reduction inquiry's hearings.

Hollie Hughes checks the label of a liquid nicotine bottle during the tobacco harm reduction inquiry’s hearings. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The TGA said it was balancing consumer demand for e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation tool, with the need to prevent non-smokers (particularly teenagers) from picking up nicotine addictions.

Days earlier, the majority report from Senator Hughes’ tobacco harm inquiry made a similar recommendation, saying a doctor-supervised prescription model was best.

Senator Hughes and her Coalition colleague Matt Canavan dissented, instead recommending that nicotine e-cigarettes be regulated as a consumer product. They think there is merit to a smoker working with their GP to help stop smoking, but worry not all doctors would be willing to prescribe e-cigarettes.

But some are.

Following the TGA decision the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said it was keen to create training programs to help educate doctors who are open to prescribing these products, and the Australian Medical Association wants to sit down with the TGA to iron out wrinkles around safe products and border regulations.

The government’s planned ban on imports has also been scrapped in light of the TGA decision.

Senator Hughes says it is a big step forward because a prescription model is movement from banning it full stop.

“I do hope that we can work with the health minister to say there are people that just want to consume nicotine in a safer way than cigarettes, and you can buy cigarettes pretty much everywhere,” she says.

As for her own experience with vaping, Senator Hughes hopes that by the time Parliament returns in February she will have tapered down enough to be off nicotine altogether.

Senator Hughes knows it won’t work as a smoking cessation tool for everyone, but it should be an option.

Rachel Clun is a federal political reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering health.

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