On the evening of 10 June, shortly after ABC-TV screened the first edition of its news backgrounding program The Context looking at the evolution of tobacco control, inveterate vaping proselytiser Alex Wodak, cleared his Twitter throat. In prose redolent of Churchill, he advised the world:

Prohibitionism? The overwhelming position of the Australian public health and medical community has been to strongly support the policy introduced by former health minister Greg Hunt who approved the supply of nicotine vaping products (NVPs) to anyone with a doctor’s prescription from October 2021.

Describing this as “prohibition” is like arguing that prescribed antibiotics, oral contraceptives or cholesterol control drugs are also prohibited.

Last year, 27 LNP government backbenchers plus legendary deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce internally rolled health minister Greg Hunt’s accompanying policy of banning personal importation of NVPs. They wanted these highly addictive, unregulated products to be made available for sale anywhere that cigarettes can be sold. And that’s anywhere that includes the many places that are supplying kids across Australia with flavoured, disposable vapes.

When the extent of the carnage caused by smoking was first consolidated in the early 1960s, factory made tobacco products had already been sold openly as ordinary items of commerce for 60 years. Across the next 60 years we saw the glacial introduction of policies that began slowly reeling in that disastrous unregulated free-for-all. Every step was fought hard (and all lost) by Big Tobacco, a fight which it continues unabated today. It’s often been said that if cigarettes had been invented in 1960, with their unparalleled risk profile known in advance, they would have never been let onto the market.

Because of this, governments around the world made every possible ignorant mistake possible in failing to regulate cigarettes, but that’s what let-it-rip vaping advocates want to risk again. By contrast, controlled access via prescription builds a platform that can be liberalised or tightened in light of emerging understanding of the risks and benefits of NVPs.

Vaping advocates  in Australia have always nailed themselves to support from deeply conservative and reactionary political figures.  But since the cataclysm of the May 21 election, they have found themselves in the political wilderness where they are likely to remai for years. Today, their former go-to political besties couldn’t make an impression in a soft cushion. Federally, the Liberal Democrats have long been toast, Fiona Patten’s Reason party got homeopathic level votes in May and Pauline Hanson and her little buddy Malcolm Roberts are impotent in the new Senate. The heroic “I vape and I vote” bumper stickers  generated not  a political bang, but a whimper.

During the last year of the Morrison government, open slather vaping advocates were supported by the 28 LNP backbenchers. With the LNP now political eunuchs and prominent LNP vaping spear-carriers Wilson, Abetz, Laming, Zimmerman and Sharma gone from parliament, vaping advocates have no political friends with any policy influence. Hollie Hughes, Matt Canavan, the lugubrious Senator James Patterson and Barnaby Joyce are the best they have. Just think about that.

Vaping’s go-to A-team from 2022

On Jun 12, 2020 this rock bottom epiphany saw a lot of people clearly playing with Wodak’s head. In a tweet he pointed at Labor, the LNP and five of Australia’s biggest health and medical NGOs who were “condemning” vaping. In fact, there are a lot more than five (see table above).

Later that day he also tweeted a graph (below) purportedly demonstrating how Australia seems to have choked badly  in reducing smoking compared with three other nations, all with  more liberal vaping regulations than us. Wow, look at how badly Australia was doing!

But there was a teensy-weensy problem here: the Australian data was for 2019 with a number then projected for 2021, while the other nations showed smoking prevalence for 2020 and 2021. Wodak should have known that the Australian Bureau of Statistics published smoking prevalence data for 2020-21  from its National Health Survey  showing that 10.7% smoked daily with 11.8% smoking daily or less than daily. So why didn’t he cite that inconvenient data? I think we can guess.

And there’s another important problem too. As I pointed out in an earlier blog looking at how Wodak’s advocacy mate Colin Mendelson engages in the same exercise, there are important differences in the way that different countries count “smoking”. Australian and US data on “current smoking” include all combustible tobacco (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, shisha) while England and New Zealand count only cigarettes and roll-your own as “smoking”.

  • Australia ages 18+) (includes cigarette and roll-your-own smokers plus all exclusive users of other combustible tobacco products like pipes, cigars, hookah and shisha)
  • USA: (ages 18+) (like Australia, includes all combustible tobacco product users)
  • New Zealand (ages 15+) (includes cigarettes & RYO only)
  • UK (ages 18+):(includes cigarettes and RYO only)

A 2017 editorial in Addiction made this same point, when looking at the most recent available data at that time:

it is likely that overall combustible tobacco use prevalence for adults18+ in the United States is higher than 15.1% [in 2015], and somewhere in line or just below the 2013–14 National Adult Tobacco Survey (NATS) estimate that 18.4% of US adults aged 18+ were current users of any combustible tobacco product

The COVID 2020-21 lockdowns saw a lot of smokers exposed to repeated advice to quit smoking. With lungs particularly susceptible to COVID, many smokers heard that message many times. In the first 5 months of 2020, downloads of the government’s Quit Buddy app increased 310%. There are good reasons to expect that the projected downward slope in Wodak’s tweeted graph would have been steeper.

So of the four nations shown  in Wodak’s graph updated for the latest national government data, Australia sits at second on 11.8% smoking at any level, behind New Zealand with 10.9% and ahead of England on 12.1% and the USA on 12.4%.

The disastrous abandonment of Hunt’s planned ban on personal importation of NVPs should be revisited. With massive quantities of totally unregulated, illegal disposable NVPs flooding Australia and driving the teenage vaping surge, the universal support of state and federal health departments to shut this down will offer Mark Butler his first Nicola Roxon moment in prevention.

Roxon’s bold introduction of plain packs, now dominoing around the world, was lauded by the health and medical community. Twenty one nations have now finalised plain packaging legislation. Restoring the ban on personal importation of NVPs and introducing and enforcing seriously deterrent fines for their commercial importers and retailers looks like a very smart move.

High Level Meeting of the General Assembly on the prevention and control of non communicable diseases speaking: Nicola Roxon, Minister for Health and Aging, Australia