The tobacco harm reduction debate is hotly contested throughout Australia and especially Tasmania where declining smoking rates have stalled.
Now a member of parliament wants to raise the legal smoking age to 21 and research has outlined the dangers of electronic cigarettes.
Vaping is a key part of the harm reduction debate. On one side, business and harm reduction groups have argued for the legalisation of tobacco vaping products for years.
But, members of health and research communities have pushed back – drawing links between vaping and lung damage and suggesting that legalisation could lead to widespread use amongst young people.
Now a Senate inquiry is looking to get to the bottom of the debate. Submissions to the, relatively short, inquiry opened on Friday with a report expected in December.
Tasmanian Labor Senator Anne Urquhart, who sits on the Senate inquiry committee, said the aim was to understand the impact legalising vaping would have on health throughout Australia.
University of Tasmania Respiratory Translation Group research head Dr Sukhwinder Sohal is firmly against the legalisation of tobacco vaping.
Research, conducted by his team, has found that heat-not-burn tobacco product, IQOS, and electronic vapes were toxic to human cells.
Dr Sohal said arguing that vaping should be legalised because it is less harmful than traditional cigarettes doesn’t make sense.
“All of our research has seen that vaping and other electronic smoking devices … are actually quite toxic to human lung cells,” he said.
“So saying that these are less toxic is a wrong claim. They are quite toxic and we are basically shifting from one lethal tobacco product to another lethal tobacco product.
“The term “harm reduction” is frequently used and is misleading, as something is either harmful or not harmful.”
Smoke Free Tasmania co-convenor and former member of the national expert advisory on tobacco Dr Kathryn Barnsly is also firmly against the legalisation of vaping.
She said there are too many unknowns when it comes to the new technology.
“The is absolutely no evidence to support [the idea that vaping is an effective harm reduction method]. In fact vaping increases smoking rates in young people,” she said.
“There are two sets of people who are pushing this. There are people who are genuine harm reduction experts, there’s only a few of these, and they also support the legalisation of heroin, ecstasy, various other drugs.
“The second group of people who are being funded by the tobacco industry or the vaping industry.”
Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association founder Dr Colin Mendelsohn said vaping would be an effective way to reduce smoking rates in people who can’t quit otherwise.
He said reductions in smoking rates had stalled because people who had been smoking their entire life were finding it difficult to quit.
“It is an effective quitting method which can help hundreds of thousands of Australian smokers to quit and it is a far safer alternative to smoking for people who are otherwise unable to stop,” Dr Mendelsohn said.
“The problem we have in Australia is that smokers are struggling to quit and our smoking rates are falling slowly much slower than in any other western countries. The reality is that many smokers just can’t quit and vaping is a substitute consumer activity to replace an existing lethal consumer activity.”
Dr Mendelsohn said ATHRA had received no donations from vaping companies since early 2019 and that they had never received donations from tobacco companies.
He said his support for the legalisation of vaping was solely based on its harm reduction values.
“There is some risk that some young people would take up vaping who otherwise mightn’t, of taking up vaping or smoking, but any risk from that is tiny compared to the huge potential benefit to adults who are helped to quit,” Dr Mendelsohn.
“Vaping is a form of harm reduction. Harm reduction is all about switching people from a high-risk behaviour to a low-risk behaviour for people who otherwise can’t quit.
“We are switching people from smoking, which kills two in three long term users, to vaping which is not risk-free but which is at least 95 per cent safer for smoking.”
Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz is also a supporter of the move to legalise vaping.
He is set to table a petition calling for vaping’s legalisation in the Senate which has received about 35,000 signatures from around Australia.
Submissions for the Senate inquiry are open until November 5 with a report expected December 1.