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Finally, information about the Scientific Inquiry into vaping, but questions remain

Posted on August 1, 2019


Finally, the government has released some details of the Scientific Inquiry into vaping, in response to a question by Senator Cory Bernardi in the Senate yesterday. Surprisingly, there are no terms of reference for the review.

The Scientific Inquiry was announced by Health Minister Greg Hunt in November 2018. However, there has been very little information forthcoming since then.

It was also announced this week that the inquiry will report by December 2020. This is nearly 3 years since the Parliamentary Inquiry into vaping recommended an independent expert review in March 2018.

The study is to be carried by out the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, by the highly regarded epidemiologist, Professor Emily Banks (pictured above) and her research team, listed here.

The grant for the project of $750,000 commenced on 27 February 2019.

Terms of reference

According to Senator Cash, the project is a review of the evidence but 'does not have terms of reference'.

What? No terms of reference? Surely the government has some parameters for the Inquiry. What question has it actually asked the NCEPH to answer?

'Do us a report of some sort, will you. Here's $750,000' Surely not!

The terms of reference are critical and would determine if the Inquiry is of value or not.

Report due end of 2020

Senator Cash reported that' the project is expected to be completed by December 2020'.

Two years for a scientific review seems like an excessive project time, unless the project is incredibly comprehensive and involves multiple analyses and external review.

In two years, 38,000 Australian smokers will die from a smoking-related disease. There should be a sense of urgency to find the answers about a potentially huge public health breakthrough such as vaping.

ATHRA's recommendations

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? Issues 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

Independent inquiry

It was reassuring to find out that the 'assessment was designed by the centre and it will be independent'. This is important. The report needs to critically and objectively evaluate the scientific evidence. There is no place for ideology, political interference, pre-judgement and moral values which have misled the debate so far in Australia.

The NCEPH is a prestigious and well regarded scientific organisation. We would expect a rigorous and unbiased scientific review which clears the way for the world's most popular and effective quitting aid to be made legally available in Australia.

Documents

Hansard. Senate Questions without Notice. 31 July 2019

ATHRA media release, 2 August 2019

Posted by Colin Mendelsohn, colin@athra.org.au


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