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Monday, 10 September 2018
Page: 5834

Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (13:24): Today we are debating a number of health bills: the Private Health Insurance Legislation Amendment Bill 2018, the A New Tax System (Medicare Levy Surcharge—Fringe Benefits) Amendment (Excess Levels for Private Health Insurance Policies) Bill 2018 and the Medicare Levy Amendment (Excess Levels for Private Health Insurance Policies) Bill 2018. One, which will slightly worsen the budget position, is about proposed changes to private healthcare legislation and the Medicare levy. One is a bill that will add an extra layer of secrecy to the Aged Care Quality Agency and its advisory board by quarantining them both from freedom of information laws. Another imposes a further tax impost on pathology collection businesses. I suppose each of them has a few positives to offset these concerns, but I will not be supporting any of them. That's not just because they are poor policy; I've previously stated that I will not be supporting any legislation introduced by health minister Greg Hunt. Why? Because he does not have Australians' best interests at heart when it comes to a crucial health issue. Each year, tens of thousands of Australians die from smoking related diseases. We all know it's true.

It would be great if people stopped smoking. We've tried a lot of things to promote that. We were the first country in the world to have plain packaging. This must surely be the most evidence-free policy ever invented, and it is yet to stop a single person from smoking. We have tobacco excise, which is so high Australia has the most expensive cigarettes in the world. This probably has stopped some people from smoking. but now we have a multibillion-dollar illegal tobacco market, with organised crime having a field day. We have nicotine gum and patches and the drug Champix. Each works for a time for some people. We have health warnings on the packs with gruesome pictures. Yet the rate of smoking is not falling; it's stuck at around 13 per cent of the population.

That's not the case in other countries. In other countries, the rate of smoking is falling, and it's not as if the rate is falling from a higher level either. Without plain packaging and without the rampant theft of tobacco excise, the rate of smoking in countries most comparable to Australia is much the same but falling. What's the difference? The difference is a much more acceptable nicotine substitute in the form of e-cigarettes, or vaping. We know that an acceptable nicotine alternative makes a big difference because we have the example of Snus. It's a form of tobacco that's placed under the lip, with the nicotine absorbed through the gums. In Sweden, where Snus is widely available, just five per cent of the population smoke.

But we're not talking about Snus; we're talking about vaping—e-cigarettes. Even though Snus is much safer than tobacco as a source of nicotine, e-cigarettes are still safer than Snus. That's not just my view but the view of many with far more expertise than me, including Public Health England, which is not known for its anti-nanny-state views. It says e-cigarettes are 95 per cent safer than smoking tobacco. In England, e-cigarettes have been available for several years, and their use, sale and some advertising are legal. Last September, Scotland's national health agency released a statement saying that e-cigarettes are definitely less harmful than tobacco smoking and that it would be a good thing if smokers switched to vaping. New Zealand's health ministry has endorsed the use of e-cigarettes as a harm reduction aid and a smoking cessation tool. And, of course, our own House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health found no reason to oppose the approval of e-cigarettes. It recommended against doing this, apparently under pressure from the minister, but the chair and most government members dissented.

Having said all of that, nobody claims e-cigarettes are harmless. We are talking about relative harm. It is true that e-cigarettes are still fairly new, so there is not a lot of long-term data on them. Yet nobody can claim they are anywhere near as harmful as smoking tobacco. To continue to ban them is totally unconscionable. We hear quite stupid justifications nonetheless. They say there is a risk that people who have never smoked may take up the habit after using nicotine e-cigarettes. There is no evidence for this. They think that inhaling nicotine through e-cigarettes will encourage children to give smoking a try—utter claptrap. They think that vaping may make the practice of smoking more acceptable again, damaging the campaign to decrease tobacco use in Australians. There is no evidence of this in any other countries. Why would Australians be any different? In any case, tobacco use is not declining in Australia. The bottom line is this: we have a very large population of smokers who can't quit with what we're currently doing. We should give them something that will enable them to quit and that is working in other countries.

What is the real reason we are persevering with this opposition to e-cigarettes? It is because the public servants in the Department of Health have a pathological hatred of the big tobacco companies. They think the big tobacco companies are behind the e-cigarette market. To them, anything that stops what the big tobacco companies want must be good. It's policy by idiocy. It's not just idiocy but ill-informed idiocy. Regrettably, our health minister fails to challenge this idiocy. Instead, he repeats it himself. The e-cigarette market is not dominated by the big companies. It's far more diverse and competitive than the tobacco market, which the public servants are protecting by blocking e-cigarettes. It would hurt the tobacco companies if smokers were to switch to e-cigarettes, but it wouldn't hurt the smokers. Many of them would save their own lives. I won't vote for any bills put forward by this minister so long as he maintains this vendetta against tobacco companies at the expense of the lives of ordinary Australian smokers. Thus, I won't be supporting these bills today.