Leading non-government health groups have welcomed a parliamentary committee’s recommendations to continue deferring to Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration for the assessment of electronic cigarettes as a therapeutic good and researching the risks and benefits of e-cigarettes through the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Responding to a new report following an inquiry into the use and marketing of e-cigarettes, Cancer Council and the National Heart Foundation said the committee should be commended for upholding the integrity of the TGA and the NHMRC, two of Australia’s independent statutory health bodies, which would help to ensure that the evidence rather than lobbying and misinformation underpinned public health policy in Australia.
Director of Public Policy at Cancer Council Australia, Paul Grogan, also commended the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, and assistant minister Bridget McKenzie, for their recent public comments also supporting the TGA and the NHMRC over lobbying. “The TGA and NHMRC are pillars of our health system. They are there to help protect against arbitrary decisions. Once we start circumventing them and deferring to lobbyists, whether from industry, ideologues or individual advocates, cracks will appear in the system. Cancer Council is involved in the scientific review of e-cigarettes and we are doing so within the NHRMC research framework, as we should.”
Mr Grogan also commended Deputy Chair and Opposition committee member, Steve Georganas, for highlighting in his additional comments the ever-present risk of tobacco industry lobbying and Australia’s obligation under the WHO’s Framework Convention On Tobacco Control to mitigate against its influence.
Tobacco control spokesperson for the National Heart Foundation, Maurice Swanson, said almost all independent health groups in Australia recommended caution on e-cigarettes, including the Australian Medical Association, the Public Health Association, the colleges of physicians and GPs, the Thoracic Society, the Lung Foundation and many others. The World Health Organisation also recommended caution, particularly in countries like Australia that have rigorous processes and strong tobacco control policies.
“It was pleasing to see the committee report in agreement with the vast majority of independent health organisations in Australia, rather than be swayed by international lobbying from countries with an inferior record in public health to Australia’s,” Mr Swanson said.
Leading respiratory physician and adviser to Cancer Council and the Heart Foundation, Professor Matthew Peters, said the focus in the inquiry on lobbying from other countries was of limited relevance, because Australia had more robust assessment processes and a better record in tobacco control than otherwise comparable nations. “Canada has only last year banned asbestos, something Australia did in 1984,” Professor Peters said. “Go figure. Part of the reason health outcomes in Australia are among the world’s best is that we apply evidence-based frameworks like the TGA and the NHMRC to health policy decisions, and we look at the Australian context. Once we start listening to lobbyists or to random advice from people outside our health system, we go down a very slippery slope.
“There is no systematic evidence that e-cigarettes have more than a marginal effect on individual quit attempts and at a population level the effect may be adverse. Meanwhile, the evidence on e-cigarettes leading to smoking in young people strengthens. And congratulations to Mr Georganas for drawing attention to the tobacco industry’s tactics in his additional comments in the report.”
Professor Peters also supported the committee’s call for a national approach to the regulation of non-nicotine electronic cigarettes.
Cancer Council and the Heart Foundation said the top priority for Australia to reduce the harms of smoking was to revive the National Tobacco Campaign and its mass media antismoking ads, which had been underfunded in recent years yet was one of the main reasons smoking prevalence in Australia had halved since the early 1990s.
A joint statement on e-cigarettes, led by the Australian Government’s cancer agency, Cancer Australia, is available here and lists organisations that support the integrity of the TGA and NHMRC: https://canceraustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/statement_on_e-cigarettes_february_2018_0.pdf