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The battle against e-cigarettes

I rise today as a representative of the electorate of Mackellar, as a GP, as a mother, as a person who has helped many beat the smoking addiction and as an Australian who watched with pride as we led the world with our public health interventions to cut national smoking rates. But now, as a doctor, I am alarmed at the prospect of Australia once again having the wool pulled over our eyes by the tobacco industry as they pray on our children by the portal of e-cigarettes.

Before I address the threat of e-cigarettes, however, I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect on the many public health initiatives that Australian health professionals fought for so tenaciously in order to reduce smoking related harms to Australians, harms such as cancer and emphysema. A multiplicity of health professionals campaigned doggedly for decades helping Australia to join the front line of global tobacco control. I'll just mention a couple today, but Professor Simon Chapman, renowned tobacco control academic and advocate, 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 cut smoking rates in this country was multifaceted and grew in momentum over the time. In 1976 a ban on the advertising of tobacco products on TV and radio was implemented. Later ads were also banned at sporting events. Then, tobacco companies' sponsorship of sport was proscribed and smoking in workplaces, restaurants and on planes forbidden. Taxes on tobacco products were gradually increased, and graphic warnings on packets mandated. Then, as we have heard, 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. By 2019, 16 countries had followed Australia's lead, adopting plain packaging rules. In the last three decades, smoking rates have gone from 24 per cent to 11 per cent. Yet here we are, 10 years on from that success, readying ourselves for another battle—the battle against e-cigarettes, tobacco 2.0. This time it is our children who are the targets of the industry's predatory behaviour, with brightly coloured packaging and lolly-like flavours.

I choose to use the term 'e-cigarettes' deliberately, rather than the softer, more common sounding 'vaping', which positions e-cigarettes as less harmful, less addictive and less worrying. In fact, scientists do not consider them to be safe. On the contrary, the WHO has confirmed that e-cigarette emissions typically contain nicotine and other toxic substances that are harmful to both users and non-users who are exposed to those aerosols at second hand. Don't be fooled by the sweet smell of emissions. E-cigarettes can contain as many as 200 toxic chemicals. A single disposable product can contain as much nicotine as 50 traditional cigarettes and cost as little as $5. Not infrequently, they contain nicotine even if they are labelled nicotine free. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances in existence, comparable to opioids and cocaine—not quite the cookies and cream or the strawberry kisses that the packaging promises.

Research published as recently as December 2022 concluded that vaping is the strongest risk factor for smoking, and a recent study of adolescents in New South Wales reported that half of the children who regularly consumed e-cigarettes had never smoked previously. Media, school and community reports suggest that the use of e-cigarettes among young people in New South Wales has exploded in recent years. We also know that major international tobacco companies have invested heavily in e-cigarettes in recent years and now own many of the top e-cigarette brands. It seems like e-cigarettes are being used as a gateway drug to smoking, getting our young people addicted to nicotine.