10 January 2020
International tobacco companies have sought meetings with the Prime Minister and leading cabinet members in an effort to overturn Australia’s ban on nicotine vaping.
Correspondence obtained by the ABC reveals that in 2019 Philip Morris sent meeting requests and pro-vaping letters to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Health Minister Greg Hunt and Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt, among others.
The ABC is not aware any meetings with the three ministers took place, but health groups are troubled by the tobacco industry’s continued efforts to influence Australian health policy.
In a statement, Philip Morris confirmed it engages with government and regulatory agencies about heated tobacco products and e-cigarettes. It says its materials aim to “promote political debate and to encourage legalisation and appropriate regulation of these products”.
Big names in traditional tobacco are investing heavily in e-cigarettes, vaporisers or vapes and heated tobacco products, which they claim are a safer alternative than cigarettes for smokers.
The long-term health impacts of vaping remain unclear, and public concern has grown following apparent vaping-related deaths in the United States.
Australia largely outlaws the sale of nicotine liquid unlike the United States, which poses a unique challenge to the tobacco industry’s ambitions. Nicotine for vaping can only be obtained with a prescription.
Philip Morris recently applied to the Therapeutic Goods Administration for regulatory changes that would make heated tobacco products legal.
Pro-vaping lobbying continues
Tobacco companies, as well as convenience store associations and libertarian groups, such as the Australian Taxpayers Alliance, have lobbied the Coalition to shift its stance on vaping.
But a spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt said he remains “clearly and categorically” opposed to legalisation of vaping products in Australia.
In Philip Morris’s largely pro-forma letter to Scott Morrison regarding Australia’s vaping policy, a hand-written note appears stating, “this is a major economic policy issue as well as a social/health topic”.
Federal president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Tony Bartone said the tobacco industry’s efforts to spruik new nicotine products are concerning — especially as there is a lack of conclusive evidence to show vaping works as a way to help people stop smoking.
“We’re very concerned, and cautiously hopeful that the Government will hold tight,” he said.
“Australia is a world leader in smoking reduction, and let’s not put that reputation at risk by going backwards.”
The tobacco company Imperial Brands also sent messages to Government MPs in 2018 and 2019.
Those messages, arguing in favour of e-cigarettes, were sent to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Minister for Agriculture Bridget McKenzie — and were obtained by the ABC under freedom of information laws.
A spokesperson for Ms McKenzie, the Nationals leader in the Senate, said she did not meet with the tobacco industry in 2019, but that it is important members of government are able to “meet with and hear the views of all members of society”.
The National Party and the Liberal Democrats received donations from Philip Morris in the 2017-18 financial year.
Head of Corporate and Legal Affairs at Imperial Brands Kirsten Daggar-Nickson said that as part of a legal industry, the company meets with government officials “from time to time” in relation to a range of issues.
“It remains the case that Australia remains the only westernised democracy which has failed to legalise e-cigarettes,” she added.
Vaping and Indigenous groups
Public health groups have previously voiced concerns about the tobacco industry’s tactics around its new products and which social groups it is targeting.
Last year, an ABC investigation revealed Philip Morris had sent letters to Indigenous groups outlining what it claimed were the potential health benefits of switching from cigarettes to heated tobacco, prompting the Health Department to issue its own message outlining the Government’s position.
A handwritten “PS” referring to vaping in New Zealand appears in the company’s letter to Minister for Indigenous Australians Wyatt, stating it is “significant that NZ is acting in large part to address Indigenous smoking”.
The Health Department’s current guidance for public officials does not ban interactions with the tobacco industry, but stipulates they should be limited.
The guidance also says Australia’s obligation to protect its tobacco control policies from commercial influence extends to emerging products such as e-cigarettes.
There is also only limited data about the effects of heated tobacco products or vaping on the body, said Dr Miranda Ween, a researcher in the Royal Adelaide Hospital’s Lung Research Laboratory.
She is concerned those trying to quit cigarettes may turn to such options over regulated and proven methods.
“The best thing is to not inhale anything that may be toxic to the lungs, when you have safer alternatives,” she said.