Clouds of vapour hovered over Melbourne’s Parliament House steps this week, as vaping activists — vaporisers in one hand, protest signs in the other — huffed and puffed about proposed new laws that would regulate tightly the use of smoking devices such as e-cigarettes.
“Remember the first vape you ever had?” e-cigarette advocate Dr Attila Danko asked the small gathering. “I do. I was astonished. It was like, ‘Wow, isn’t this amazing? This feels just like smoking.’ [For] so many of us, that was the last time we had a cigarette.”
Dr Danko was joined by other e-cigarette supporters including tobacco treatment specialist Dr Colin Mendelsohn, Australian Sex Party MP Fiona Patten and Eros general manager Rachel Payne.
“You don’t see people accidentally giving up with any other quit smoking method,” Dr Danko continued. “I think this shows the power of this device, a smoking simulator that has public health potential, probably greater than anything else I’ve seen — probably even greater than penicillin.”
The Tobacco Amendment Bill 2016 put forward by the Andrews Government in May looks to prohibit the use of vaporisers and e-cigarettes in smoke-free areas, and the sale of these devices to individuals under 18.
“I think the evidence is very clear now that the health benefits of vaping are substantial, and the risks from vaping are relatively minor. With appropriate controls, I think they can save the lives of thousands of Victorians.” — tobacco treatment specialist Colin Mendelsohn
As the use of vaporisers grows in popularity, particularly for former smokers, concerns over their supposed benefits have been echoed throughout the health science community.
Quit — the long-standing joint initiative of the Cancer Council of Victoria, Department of Health, National Heart Foundation and VicHealth — has been clear in its opposition, stating that e-cigarettes have not been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Australia’s regulating body for therapeutic products.
Despite this, medical professionals such as Dr Danko and Dr Mendelsohn have been speaking out against the new legislation, rallying vaping activists and citing studies that show e-cigarettes to not only be a safer alternative to smoking, but also an effective way to kick the habit.
The law changes are still before parliament. Currently, it is illegal to use nicotine liquid in vaporisers without a doctor’s prescription, but the possession of the devices and the use of other juices is not illegal.
The proposed laws look to not only ban the advertising of e-cigarette brands in vape stores, but also the demonstration and displaying of devices. This would make it virtually impossible for store owners to properly recommend products and juices to potential customers.
“I consider vape shops to be one of the most ethical and humanitarian types of businesses that you could ever be involved in,” said Dr Danko, to cheers from the smoke-covered crowd.
“I often wonder why all these powerful groups are against vaping. It’s helping people quit smoking, it’s far safer . . . and the evidence shows us it’s not a gateway to kids taking it up. But the other day, I realised why: I was inspired by a certain red-headed politician from Queensland, because she famously said, ‘I don’t like it’. When you blow that vapour out, ‘I don’t like it’. When you don’t quit the way I want you to, ‘I don’t like it’.
“And that’s the essence of their argument. They don’t like the way it looks. They don’t like people enjoying recreational nicotine, but smokers are saying, ‘I do like it, I really like it’.”
Dr Mendelsohn, who has been treating smokers for more than 35 years, says that limiting access to vaporisers and e-cigarettes would prove to be harmful to the public health system.
“This legislation that’s before Parliament effectively removes a much safer alternative to smoking and, as a result, will increase smoking-related death and illness in Victoria. This proposal is not based on the evidence, it’s based on fear and misinformation,” Dr Mendelsohn said.
“E-cigarettes are not tobacco, and it’s absurd to categorise vaporising as tobacco activity . . . They do contain nicotine, which we all know is relatively harmless. It’s the smoke from burning [tobacco] that does all the damage.”
Dr Mendelsohn went on to ensure the crowd that concerns surrounding vaping and it’s possible negative health effects were unwarranted.
“I think the evidence is very clear now that the health benefits of vaping are substantial, and the risks from vaping are relatively minor. With appropriate controls, I think they can save the lives of thousands of Victorians,” he said. “We need legislation to support and encourage their use, not to discourage it.”
Ms Patten added her support for the vaping community and a change in legislation.
“To link vaporising with smoking shows a complete misunderstanding, and they probably missed Year 7 science, but I didn’t and I totally support your movement. I think this legislation needs to be reviewed. I don’t think [your] voices have been heard,” she told the gathering.
“Sure, let’s regulate vaporising. Let’s make sure that the devices are safe, let’s make sure the juices are safe, but let’s make them available.”
Should the government’s proposed changes pass through Parliament, the new laws will take effect from August, 2017.