17 August 2023
By Melissa Davey, The Guardian
Exclusive: study finds 26% of individual responses to TGA vaping reforms contained text from template provided as part of ‘astroturfing’ campaign
More than one-quarter of submissions from individual e-cigarette users made to the Australian government’s vaping reforms consultation featured text from an “astroturfing” campaign led by the tobacco and vaping industry, “bypassing conflict-of-interest” declaration requirements, a study has found.
The World Health Organization defines astroturfing as the faking of a grassroots movement that in reality is being controlled by a hidden multinational company or organisation, in this case tobacco and vaping companies.
The study led by the University of Melbourne and published in the journal Health Promotion International analysed more than 2,385 public submissions made in response to the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s vaping reforms proposal. Researchers then excluded submissions made by organisations and institutes, focusing on just the 1,405 submissions made by self-identified e-cigarette users.
The study’s lead author, A/Prof Michelle Jongenelis, who is the deputy director of the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change, read every submission and found 370 of them – or 26% – contained text from a template provided by a vaping industry-led organisation as part of an astroturfing campaign encouraging e-cigarette users to oppose reforms.
The paper does not name the company responsible for the “astroturfing” campaign.
The grassroots campaign encouraged vapers to include prewritten arguments in their submissions without ever disclosing those arguments and the campaign was funded by a big tobacco company, the study found.
“By lobbying users to make submissions on their behalf, the tobacco and e-cigarette industries are bypassing conflict-of-interest declaration requirements,” the study found.
“Exposing the disingenuous methods used by industry to promote their agenda may assist with ensuring public policy is not influenced by vested interests.”
Jongenelis told Guardian Australia that people need to be made aware of “the extent to which industry rhetoric is reaching the community, as this rhetoric often features unsubstantiated claims and misinformation”.
“The source of the information is often hidden so the community might not even be aware that the ads they are seeing are actually big tobacco. We have seen this with recent campaigns by Responsible Vaping Australia. Despite being backed by British America Tobacco, the ads for Responsible Vaping Australia don’t mention that it is backed by BAT.”
Guardian Australia previously revealed that organisations linked to tobacco and vaping also failed to declare their conflicts of interest to the TGA inquiry.
The researchers found 332 submissions (24%) from individual users said the reforms were an infringement on freedom of choice and personal liberties, while 103 (7%) said youth uptake is not a problem. Meanwhile, 38 submissions (3%) said it is better for kids to vape than smoke and 80 (6%) referred to the debunked factoid that vaping is “95% safer” than smoking.
About half (55%) of submissions mentioned perceived benefits of e-cigarettes, including favourable health outcomes such as improved breathing. The study concluded public education campaigns are warranted, given “the long-term health risks associated with e-cigarette use remain unknown”.
“Informing users about this uncertainty may assist them to make informed decisions about ongoing use,” the study said. “Given 40% of smokers who use e-cigarettes to quit smoking become users of both e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes, ensuring users are aware that complete cessation of tobacco cigarette smoking is needed to optimise health benefits is also warranted.”
The federal, state and territory governments are currently discussing what form the legislation to ban the import of nicotine and non-nicotine vaping products should take.
The acting director of Quit, Craig Sinclair, said in the meantime, pro-vaping lobby groups continue to contribute to misinformation about the inherent harms of vaping.
“We are concerned about the high volume of activity of these lobby groups, many of which have vested interests through connections to retail associations and/or big tobacco,” he said.
“For the first time in more than two decades, this year we have seen an increase in teen (14-17-year-old) smoking in Australia. Vaping remains a threat to Australia’s world-leading progress in driving down smoking prevalence.”