A guest post by Carrick Graham:

New Zealand has always been a global leader in tobacco control. The 1990 Smokefree Environment’s Act came about due to the leadership of Helen Clark who essentially laid the foundations for the aspirational goal today of New Zealand being Smokefree by 2025.

For the past quarter of a century tobacco control has achieved significant milestones in their efforts against tobacco.

But herein lies a problem. The actual achievement of a Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 goal of having 5% or less of the population smoking has now created a rod for the back of tobacco control.

The purists believe the only way to achieve the goal is for the Government to push through further amendments to the Smokefree Environments Act. They are particularly enthused with the possible introduction of plain-packaging of tobacco products this side of the Tasman.

This desire to introduce another round of regulations seems to be at the expense of ignoring, or even acknowledging low hanging fruits that are currently in plain sight.

Take the review of the Customs and Excise Act that is currently underway. At this very moment, anyone can grow up to 15 kilograms of tobacco (that’s equivalent to 300x 50g RYO pouches) year after year for personal use. That is the equivalent of 300x 50gram pouches of un-taxed and un-labelled roll-your-own.  This provision seems at odds with the objectives of tobacco control and a Smokefree Aotearoa. Yet surprisingly, not a Scooby’s whistle from tobacco control on this issue.

But that’s not the most scandalous element of tobacco control today.

The British Government recently commissioned an independent review of the latest evidence on e-cigarettes and their use to ensure that practitioners, policy makers and the public have the best evidence available. The result was the ‘E-cigarettes: an evidence update’ Report, released in August 2015.

As a result, Public Health England now says “best estimates show e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful to your health than normal cigarettes, and when supported by a smoking cessation service, help most smokers to quit tobacco altogether”.

One of the lead authors of the report was New Zealand’s very own public health academic, Dr Hayden McRobbie.

This report has been supported by credible organisations like Cancer Research UK, the Royal College of Physicians, and the British Lung Foundation. Yet, the likes of ASH New Zealand, Smokefree Coalition, and even the Cancer Society, seemingly refuse to openly discuss what is clearly the new elephant in the room.

Just last week the UK’s Royal College of Physicians – an institution representing 32, 000 doctors and renowned for its work in tobacco control, released a 220 page report Nicotine without smoke: Tobacco harm reduction.

They conclude that: E-cigarettes are not a gateway to smoking (actually they can act as a gateway from smoking) and do not result in normalisation of smoking.

This Royal College of Physicians report received significant global media coverage. In New Zealand it was picked up by the Otago Daily Times and warranted just a fleeting mention in the NZ Herald. Stuff seemed to have missed the story.

It seems some within New Zealand’s tobacco control community cannot bring themselves to openly (or publicly) discuss what are by a country mile, two of the most significant and internationally recognised reports on e-cigarettes ever produced.

Further to this, more than 50 public health researchers recently wrote a ‘Statement from specialists in nicotine science and public health policy’ to Dr Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Health Organisation.

In this statement these specialists (including eminent New Zealand public health figures Associate Professor Chris Bullen, Dr Murray Laugesen, Dr Hayden McRobbie) said:

“The potential for tobacco harm reduction products to reduce the burden of smoking related disease is very large, and these products could be among the most significant health innovations of the 21st Century – perhaps saving hundreds of millions of lives. The urge to control and suppress them as tobacco products should be resisted and instead regulation that is fit for purpose and designed to realise the potential should be championed by WHO.

We are deeply concerned that the classification of these products as tobacco and their inclusion in the FCTC will do more harm than good, and obstruct efforts to meet the targets to reduce non-communicable disease we are all committed to.”

With Euromonitor forecasting retail sales of e-cigarettes worldwide for 2013 at US$2.5 billion, Wells Fargo estimating that figure will top $10 billion by 2017, and Bloomberg Industries projecting that sales will exceed those of traditional cigarettes by 2047, it is a disruptive technology-driven market that is not going away. 

Clive Bates, a former Director of ASH UK tweeted this week ‘Great thing about NZ is that it is small enough to change quickly, big enough to be a game-changer worldwide’.

To this point, this week New Zealand is to host the world premiere of the documentary ‘A Billion Lives’ at DocEdge Film Festival. The film is about vaping and the role e-cigarettes play in harm reduction and public health.

How the Government responds to this will be very interesting indeed.

Disclosure: Carrick Graham was Corporate Affairs Director for BAT NZ until 2006, when he left to establish Facilitate Communications. He has maintained an interest in the tobacco debate. Facilitates’ clients include retailer interests.

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