Australia’s liberal party MPs have long been striving to overturn the current vaping ban. Down under the devices are legal, but the use of nicotine-containing refills is not. In August 2016, several public health activists had submitted proposals to local regulator Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), to remove nicotine concentrations of below 3.6% from the Poisons Standard. However, in February 2017, the TGA rejected the application and upheld the nicotine ban.

Last September during a party room meeting, several MPs had raised the issue once again, saying that there is widespread support within the government to legalize the nicotine-containing devices. The discussion was triggered by the New South Wales Liberal Trent Zimmerman, and while health minister Hunt had stated that he was still opposed to any changes to current regulations, he had finally agreed to an independent inquiry into the scientific evidence about the devices.

However, almost a year later, there has been very little information released about the inquiry. Yet, in response to a question by Senator Cory Bernardi in the Senate last week, the Australian government has finally released some details.

Inquiry details

A grant of $750,000 has been available since the 27th of February 2019, and the project is expected to be complete by December 2020.

The study will be carried out by the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, by the highly regarded epidemiologist, Professor Emily Banks and her team. The grant of $750,000 for the project, has been available since the 27th of February 2019, and the project is expected to be complete by December 2020.

According to Senator Cash, there has been a lot of controversy as the project is a review of evidence but ‘does not have terms of reference’, which everyone agrees are critical and would determine whether the inquiry is of value or not.

On the other hand, thankfully the inquiry will be independent, “the assessment was designed by the centre and it will be independent’. This increases the likelihood of the report being objective and non-biased.

ATHRA’s recommendations

Meanwhile the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA) is offering the following recommendations for the inquiry:

“ATHRA’s advice to the Minister was that an Inquiry should consider three issues.

  1. The primary consideration is to assess the net public health benefit. The fundamental question is ‘What is the overall net effect of vaping on public health?’ Do the potential benefits of vaping outweigh the potential harms at a population level? This is the central issue to guide policy making.
  2. There are also ethical considerations. For example, how should the rights of adult smokers to safer alternatives be weighed against the risk of vaping to adolescents? Is it appropriate to ban lower risk vaping while allowing the sale of higher risk cigarettes?
  3. Finally, which regulatory model is most likely to optimise the public health impact of vaping? Options include:
  • Rescheduling of nicotine
  • How should vaporisers be classified: consumer products, tobacco products, therapeutic products or a combination of these?
  • Specific regulatory issues: sale, manufacturing, importation, distribution, use, product design including e-liquid ingredients and emissions, advertising/promotion/sponsorship, taxation, health warning labels and child-safety standards
  • Strategies to minimise adverse public health effects such as adolescent uptake
  • Risk-proportionate regulation”

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