There’s a figure that is often quoted by vaping enthusiasts: e-cigarettes are 5 per cent as harmful as traditional combustible cigarettes. That figure comes from Public Health England.

But according to Dr Sarah White, director of Quit Victoria (part of the Cancer Council), this is a “spurious made up figure”. She says the constant quoting of Public Health England is disingenuous. Most scientific studies find the risks outweigh the benefits.

“I have a box full of the position statements and evidence reports that are anti-e-cigarettes. The pile of paper is about 20 centimetres high, and there’s another one that’s pro, and it’s about 4 centimetres high. And all the stuff from the pro camp is all England with one exception, which is Canada.”

Most reports conclude the chemicals in the vapour inhaled from e-cigarettes probably have negative health impacts. The long-term effects of these health impacts won’t be known for many years.

The other major risk is that it will lead non-smokers, especially young non-smokers, to take up vaping, and that this could be a gateway to traditional cigarette smoking.

Dr White is critical of the British government’s bullish approach, calling it a “massive natural experiment”.

“I think they came to it with a concept that was coming from the right place and was a really good idea, but instead of testing it they kind of threw themselves in. And I think they’ve actually got themselves into a position where there was a lot of criticism from around the world and they’re just digging in now.

“When you look at the data, the number of people making quit attempts in the UK is dropping. The number of people using gum, patches, lozenges, all those sorts of things, is dropping. The number of people accessing stop smoking services is dropping. And we know that the most common form of use for e-cigarettes is to continue to use them along with cigarettes.

“We know that there’s just no safe level of cigarette smoking. So if we have what’s called dual use, we know that there’s no health benefit there.”

She warned Australia against following suit, because as the market grows, its lobbying power also grows. That would make it difficult to reverse – as has been seen with governments’ decades-long effort to regulate the sale of tobacco.

“If you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s going to be nigh on impossible to put it back in,” Dr White says.

Most health bodies in Australia agree with Dr White that caution and more research are needed. That includes the Australian Medical Association, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, the National Heart Foundation, and the government’s own health research body, the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Those who argue in favour tend to be tobacco companies, tobacco retailers, political libertarians, a handful of individual doctors – by far the most prominent being Sydney smoking cessation specialist Dr Colin Mendelsohn – and, of course, vapers like Margaretha and Adrian.

News Corp publications have also run many pro-vaping stories, most of which quote Dr Mendelsohn. News Corp denies this has anything to do with Rupert Murdoch once being on the board of Philip Morris, or the fact that his lead director, Peter L. Barnes, spent most of his career at Philip Morris. Read this 2014 piece by The New Daily’s Michael Pascoe to learn more about News Corp’s longstanding support of big tobacco.

So far the Australian government has listened to expert bodies rather than big tobacco, vapers, libertarians and News Corp.

In a statement to The New Daily, a spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt said: “The overwhelming medical advice and evidence is that it [e-cigarette use] is likely to lead to the uptake of smoking and we cannot support that.

“This is the view of the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Australia’s chief medical officer, chief health officers from all Australian states and territories and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

“The Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of GPs are also concerned and have presented clear evidence highlighting this.”

But this will not stop big tobacco – with the support of Liberal MPs like Tim Wilson, Eric Abetz and Trent Zimmerman – from lobbying energetically for a relaxation of the laws. Only last month, they appeared to gain a small victory, when Mr Hunt agreed to set up an independent inquiry into the health risks and benefits of e-cigarettes.

Regardless of whether or not e-cigarettes are a lifeline for smokers who can’t quit any other way, one thing is clear: big tobacco isn’t in it for the health benefits. It wants a piece of the action because it has sniffed a new opportunity to rake in billions off people’s addiction to nicotine. For that reason, most health experts agree that their nice-sounding words must be rigorously scrutinised.

In his submission to the parliamentary inquiry earlier this year, Renee Bittoun, a smoking cessation specialist at the University of Sydney, put it in no uncertain terms.

“It is naïve to believe that the tobacco industry, given its past history, will not endeavour to expand its market and sale of this highly addictive substance. In particular, the seductive and alluring marketing to gain an adolescent consumer who may become a life-long nicotine addict is reprehensible. No health worker should be complicit in this.”

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For more DATA on E-Cigarettes and Vaping

NIDA: E-Cigarettes

The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides this fact sheet about e-cigarettes, which includes their effects on teens, how teens are using them, the link between e-cigarette use and traditional cigarette use, and information about nicotine addiction.

Go to NIDA's website

CDC: Electronic Cigarettes

The Centers for Disease Control maintains a hub of information about e-cigarettes, how they affect youth, and resources for concerned advocates to use, including fact sheets and infographics.

View the Hub