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Sophie welcomes Vaping Reform Bill 2024

15 May, 2024

I rise to speak in strong support of the Therapeutic Goods and Other Legislation Amendment (Vaping Reforms) Bill 2024, and I commend the government and the health minister for introducing this much-needed public health intervention. I'm proud that, as a nation, we are building on the world-leading role Australia has already played in tobacco control.

Unrestricted, unregulated vaping is seriously harmful to the health of too many Australians, particularly young Australians. There is a widespread and serious concern among health policy makers, practitioners and academics about the growing use of disposable, single-use e-cigarettes, particularly amongst young people. In addition to the significant health concerns is the fact that the plastic waste from these hundreds of thousands of single-use vapes often end up in our waterways and in our landfill and take a thousand years to decompose. This is not acceptable, when microplastics are already found throughout our bodies and our environment. I would like to note upfront the near unanimous support this legislation has in the public health community. Very broadly, academics, civil society organisations and medical practitioners are delighted that this legislation has been introduced and look forward to the positive impact it will have on the health of Australians, particularly young Australians, both now and into the future.

The Cancer Council, a leading expert group on tobacco control with decades of experience in this field, wrote to me to confirm that they and other members of the public health community are united in their strong support for these reforms. The Cancer Council's view is that the reforms will reduce the easy availability of e-cigarettes in our community and to our young people and children. Our children simply should not be able to hop off their school bus, go to the local convenience store and buy e-cigarettes whenever they wish. The Cancer Council also commends the fact that this bill will strengthen and streamline the pathway to access therapeutic e-cigarettes so that prescriptions for them will be more easily and more broadly accessible for those who need them for smoking cessation. It is simply misinformation by vested interests to say that GPs will not be able to keep up with demand. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners strongly refutes this claim, saying, 'This is our bread and butter.' And don't forget: nicotine replacement products are widely available in every pharmacy in the country. The Australian Medical Association was also vociferous in its support for this legislation.

I have spoken many times in this place on my significant concerns about the rise of vaping in Australia, particularly amongst young people and children. I'm a mother of teenagers and have practised as a GP for years. I understand the dangers of vaping, both from a health perspective and from a parental one. Those dangers include negative impacts on adolescent brain development, worsened pregnancy outcomes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer. Other, less direct health risks include severe burns, poisoning and seizures.

And don't be fooled by the sweet smell of the emissions. E-cigarettes contain as many as 200 toxic chemicals. The World Health Organization has confirmed:

E-cigarette emissions typically contain nicotine and other toxic substances that are harmful to both users and non-users who are exposed to the aerosols second-hand.

These chemicals include carcinogens, chemicals known to cause cancer, such as acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. They also contain acrolein, a herbicide primarily used to kill weeds, which can cause irreversible lung damage. They contain diacetyl, a chemical linked to a lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans—meaning it destroys lung tissue. This disease is also called popcorn lung. And then there's acetone—yes, nail polish remover. Yum! A single disposable product can contain as much nicotine as 50 traditional cigarettes and cost as little as $5. That's what our children are ingesting. Commonly, they contain nicotine even if they are labelled 'nicotine free'. And nicotine—let's be clear—is one of the most addictive substances in existence, comparable to opioids and cocaine—not quite the cookies and cream and strawberry kisses that you read on the label.

What worries me particularly about vaping is the immediate adverse impacts on adolescent and teen brains—the impact on their concentration, their behaviour and their ability to learn. I've heard stories from schoolteachers about schoolkids who have to wear nicotine patches just so they can make it through the exam period and about the behavioural issues and impaired concentration that nicotine dependence and withdrawal lead to in schoolchildren. I've heard from local schools that they have had to install vapour detectors in bathrooms because the use of vapes during class is so prolific. A scientific article on the toxicology of e-cigarette constituents concluded:

The adolescent brain is particularly sensitive to the effects of nicotine.

It said: This may help explain altered cognitive function and attention performance in adolescents who smoke.

It said: Studies in human subjects indicate that smoking during adolescence increases the risk of developing psychiatric disorders and cognitive impairment in later life. In addition, adolescent smokers suffer from attention deficits, which aggravate with the years of smoking.

It would simply be irresponsible not to act now when we know this.

It is simply not correct to say that vapes are being used by young people as a strategy to quit smoking cigarettes. A recent study of adolescents in New South Wales reported that half of the kids who were regularly consuming e-cigarettes had never smoked. In fact, people who use e-cigarettes are around three times more likely to take up tobacco smoking compared to those who have never vaped. Research published in December 2022 concluded that vaping is the strongest risk factor for smoking. In other words, vaping is a gateway drug to smoking cigarettes. Sadly, it seems to me there has been a cynical strategy to move our children from e-cigarettes to cigarettes by getting them hooked on nicotine. In fact, in Australia there are currently no therapeutic vapes that have been evaluated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for smoking cessation or the management of nicotine dependence. GPs already have several effective ways to help people quit smoking, including nicotine replacement therapy, medications to help manage cravings and counselling. These methods have actually got the evidence behind them that they work. In fact, in my many years as a GP I don't recall a single patient coming to me and asking for a script for an e-cigarette to help them quit smoking.

Further, the very idea of vaping as a cigarette cessation tool has been bolstered by—you guessed it—the tobacco industry. Four years after announcing it would move into the e-cigarette market, Philip Morris launched the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. It is the sole founder of that foundation to which, as reported by the Australian newspaper, it contributes an astonishing $80 million annually. The foundation has financed more than 70 academic papers on e-cigarettes and smoking cessation. It seems to me the tobacco industry is reinventing itself and crafting its own narrative. And it's not just the academic and scientific community that the tobacco industry seeks to capture with its ill-gotten wealth; it's our politicians, too. Firstly, I'll say that the Greens have never accepted donations from tobacco companies. The Labor Party announced 20 years ago that they would no longer accept donations from tobacco companies, and the Liberal Party followed suit in 2013. But, between 2013 and 2023, the Nationals have accepted over $385,000 in donations from the tobacco company Philip Morris. It will be interesting to see how the Nationals vote on this issue.

The changes being introduced by this bill have not come a moment too soon, as so-called convenience stores, which are poorly disguised facades for selling e-cigarettes, have popped up in communities all over Australia. In my own electorate of Mackellar, there are at least eight such stores, many of them springing up soon after the government announced, last year, their intention to phase out the use of disposable vapes. These stores are typically located near schools and near stops for buses and trains that ferry our children to and from school.

This bill is the next step in the government's efforts to arrest and reverse the increasing rates of vaping and smoking. At its most basic, the bill amends the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989 to ban the importation, domestic manufacture, supply, commercial possession and advertisement of disposable, single-use non-therapeutic vapes. The bill also requires pharmaceutical-like packaging for e-cigarettes and makes them available only through pharmacies. I congratulate the government for continuing its world leadership in public health by acting swiftly to curb dangerous cigarette products.

As part of that sentiment, it's worth taking the opportunity to reflect on the many successful public health initiatives that Australian health professionals have fought for so tenaciously to reduce smoking related harms to Australians, including cancer and emphysema. As a doctor, having witnessed the distress of many patients with emphysema, in my opinion it is one of the cruellest ways to die. We must also remember the health professionals who helped Australia join the front line of global tobacco control. Professor Simon Chapman, world renowned tobacco-control academic and activist, deserves a special mention, as does Professor Melanie Wakefield and her team at the Cancer Council, whose work established the vital negative link between plain packaging and cigarette smoking. The approach to cutting smoking rates in this country has been multifaceted and grew momentum over time. In 1976 the ban on advertising of tobacco products on TV and radio was implemented. Later, cigarette ads were also banned at sporting events. Then tobacco company sponsorship of sport was proscribed, and smoking in workplaces and restaurants and on planes was forbidden. Taxes on tobacco products were gradually increased and graphic warnings on packets mandated. Then in December 2012 Australia became the first country in the world to implement plain-packaging laws. Within three years of this legislation being introduced an estimated 100,000 fewer Australians smoked.

This legislation builds on that leadership, and I congratulate and thank this government, and Minister Butler in particular, for their hard work and vision. This is a Sliding Doors moment for tens of thousands of people in Australia who will be spared years of suffering. I commend the bill to the House. Thank you.