As you read this article, lobbyists from big tobacco companies are stalking the corridors of Parliament House trying to persuade federal lawmakers to grant them their latest wish: Permission to sell electronic cigarettes to all Australians.
Their argument is simple.
E-cigarettes are almost certainly a much less harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes. And unlike nicotine gum, lozenges and patches, smokers love them.
They provide the same visceral and ritualistic satisfaction as traditional cigarettes, without – so the argument goes – the same risks of cancer, heart disease and all the other dire ailments associated with smoking. They are a genuine replacement.
In an exclusive interview with The New Daily, the managing director of Philip Morris International, Tammy Chan, insisted the tobacco giant has consumers’ best interests at heart.
But our investigation leaves little doubt that big tobacco, in the face of plummeting cigarette sales, believes it’s hit on the product that will allow it to continue to make billions from nicotine addiction.
In the process, big tobacco companies are cherry-picking research that supports their interests, and health experts warn that if the government yields to the pressure, it will be taking a serious gamble with the health of the nation.
Meet the vapers
The success of the tobacco industry is based on an unfortunate quirk of brain chemistry.
When nicotine enters the bloodstream and reaches the brain, it opens the ‘reward centre’ – the part of the brain that has evolved to reward necessary or helpful activities. This releases one of the brain’s pleasure chemicals, dopamine.
Nicotine convinces the brain it needs nicotine by creating special nicotine receptors. In reality, nicotine does nothing beneficial for us, but a glitch in the system makes us think it does.
The positive hit from the dopamine is incredibly short-lived.
As most heavy smokers will tell you, those receptors start screaming out for a hit of nicotine within an hour of the last cigarette. If you don’t meet the receptors’ demands, their complaints just get louder.
The only way to break a nicotine addiction is to ignore this raging beast until it dies of starvation. But because the longer and more regularly you smoke, the more of these receptors you have, and heavy smokers can find it pretty much impossible to quit.
That was the case with two of the vapers The New Daily spoke to: Margaretha, 58, and Adrian, 49. Both were decades-long smokers who found it impossible to quit until they tried vaping.
For both, vaping was nothing short of a miracle.
It has allowed them to satisfy the nicotine beast without exposing their lungs to the lethal chemicals in tobacco smoke.
As tobacco control pioneer Michael Russell said in the 1970s, “People smoke for the nicotine, but they die from the tar”. Because vaping doesn’t involve burning the tobacco, it doesn’t expose users’ lungs to tar.
“I was probably 16 when I started smoking cigarettes,” Adrian said. “After 30 years of smoking cigarettes, I was probably smoking a packet of 30 a day. That took a lot of commitment.”
He said he tried all sorts of methods to quit or cut down, but nothing worked. “The simple fact was I enjoyed smoking,” he said.
He first tried vaping about seven years ago, but in those days the technology was more primitive and the nicotine hit was not sufficient.
“Roughly two and a half years ago, I came back to have a look at it again and noticed how things had improved, and this time it stuck. The equipment was better. Everything was better. It was just easier.
“I haven’t had a cigarette [since],” he said, adding he has noticed a major improvement in his health.
Buying e-cigarette machines is easy – there are plenty of shops in Australia. But buying nicotine liquid for the machines is not. It’s illegal to buy nicotine liquid in Australia without a doctor’s prescription.
Instead, Adrian buys his online from overseas – mainly from China. He resents being made to feel like a criminal for doing so.
Margaretha’s story is similar. A life-long smoker, she took up vaping last April and hasn’t smoked a cigarette since.
“I tried everything you can imagine to quit smoking. I tried the gum, the patches. I tried hypnotherapy. I’ve read all Allen Carr’s books. I’ve read probably five other books to help you stop smoking. Nothing really worked. So I was really quite desperate.”
After being introduced to vaping by friends from Europe, she researched it and decided it was worth a try. So she went to a vape shop in Melbourne, got the paraphernalia, and then ordered nicotine liquid from a website called Nicopharm, which writes prescriptions for, and sells, nicotine liquid.
“For about two weeks, I still smoked one cigarette in the morning because that was the hardest one for me to let go. And I quit on 1 April last year, and it has been absolutely amazing. It has been fantastic.”
Adrian and Margaretha’s experiences are typical. Earlier this year a federal parliamentary committee inquiry into vaping was bombarded with more than 200 submissions from people who had quit smoking by switching to vaping.
These submissions, almost without exception, had a tone of gratitude and almost evangelical fervour. Vaping, for these hard-core smokers, is a miracle cure to the life-threatening sickness of cigarette addiction.
Vaping advocates say the government has an obligation to allow consumers to freely buy a product that could save them from this lethal, expensive addiction – especially since traditional cigarettes are freely available to anyone over the age of 18.
This is exactly the line big tobacco takes.
The Marlboro Man has a new line in durries
Earlier this year, Philip Morris International, the tobacco giant behind the iconic Marlboro brand, did something odd. It took out a full-page ad in newspapers in Britain declaring it would stop selling traditional cigarettes.
“Our ambition,” the ad read, “is to stop selling cigarettes in the UK. It won’t be easy. But we are determined to turn our vision into reality.”
If that sounds too good to be true, of course it is. Philip Morris took out the ad only in Britain for a simple reason: in the UK, buying e-cigarettes is as easy as buying a pint of beer.
The British government, on the advice of its official health body Public Health England, has taken a bullish approach to e-cigarettes, judging that the harm reduction of having smokers shift to vaping far outweighs the unknown long-term risks of vaping.
As a result, there has been an explosion in e-cigarette use in Britain.
On the footpaths outside pubs and office buildings, where the dwindling community of smokers once congregated, vapers have taken their place. Shops selling nicotine liquid and e-cigarette machines have sprung up all over country.
The visible effect of the change in British law is amazing, and a testament to the power of nicotine addiction.
The figures back it up – 5.5 per cent of Brits over the age of 16 describe themselves as regular vapers, up from 3.7 per cent just three years earlier, when the UK’s Office of National Statistics started recording vaping rates.
Philip Morris refers to e-cigarettes as ‘reduced risk products’. And while these products still make up less than 5 per cent of its revenue (an incredible $US79 billion last year), sales are rapidly growing.
Cigarette sales, meanwhile, are in free fall. In 2016, Philip Morris sold 813 billion cigarettes. In 2017, this number fell dramatically to 761 billion.
That trend reaches back years. Last year Philip Morris sold 120 billion fewer cigarettes than it did in 2013. That’s a 15 per cent drop in four years.
Compare that to e-cigarettes. In 2016, the company sold seven billion ‘units’. In 2017, this figure increased fivefold to 36 billion.
By far its biggest market is Japan, and its presence in Britain is small – dwarfed by arch-competitor British American Tobacco. But it plans to change this. And it has no intention of stopping with Britain.
Philip Morris is here to help
Philip Morris International opened its 2017 annual report with positively philanthropic sentiments.
“The greatest contribution PMI can make to society,” it ran, “is to replace cigarettes with less-harmful alternatives, which is why we are transforming from a cigarette maker to a smoke-free technology leader.”
Philip Morris, whose most noted contribution to society to date has probably been the spread of lung cancer and emphysema, has suddenly developed a social conscience.
This philanthropic rhetoric is, of course, a front. The figures above tell the real story.
As the world wises up to the destructive effects of smoking, cigarette consumption is plummeting. Despite big tobacco’s best efforts to influence governments with threats and lawsuits, and grow sales in new, poorly-regulated countries, it is a losing battle. Giants like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have realised that if they want to save the business in the long run, they need a new product.
And just as with cigarettes, if they are to provide value to shareholders, they need to get as many people hooked on e-cigarettes as they can.
Philip Morris International’s Australian offices in Melbourne’s South Wharf are not particularly flashy, and there isn’t a sign of a cigarette anywhere. It’s a far cry from the sort of big swinging, dart-chugging corporate culture you might expect if you’ve watched shows like Mad Men.
Managing director Tammy Chan fits this less flashy image. She’s been with the company for nearly 20 years, but doesn’t walk around in a haze of tobacco smoke.
On the contrary, she is positively apologetic about tobacco’s lethal effects – she describes the industry as “sinful” – and has ready a long and convincing list of reasons why Philip Morris should be allowed to flog electronic durries to Australians.
At the centre is the position that “no matter what, there will be smokers”, and that if Philip Morris can provide them with a less harmful alternative, then that is surely a good thing.
So does Philip Morris want to continue profiting off people’s addiction to nicotine by selling e-cigarettes?
“We do, but in a different way,” Ms Chan told The New Daily. “We know that a better alternative exists, and we want to sell that instead of what we know for sure kills people. It’s not the addiction, but it kills people. That’s what we recognise. Selling cigarettes is killing people.”
(It’s worth remembering, at this point, that last year Philip Morris sold 761 billion traditional, cancer-causing cigarettes worldwide – and did so quite deliberately.)
“We still want to be a successful business. Don’t get us wrong, we are running a business. But by switching, selling something that the smokers want, smokers are our consumer, and it’s better for them. So I think that’s our commitment in a nutshell.”
While she admits that Philip Morris wants to get people hooked on e-cigarettes, she insists it is only those already hooked on traditional cigarettes. She quotes estimates from the World Health Organisation that, by 2030, one billion people around the world will still smoke.
“We’re saying that this pool, if everyone converts, using a different form of e-cigarette or whatever you call it, we would still be a very successful business, as we have been before.”
This may seem like a reasonable answer, but if Philip Morris gets what it wants – e-cigarettes sold alongside normal cigarettes to anyone over 18, with more relaxed rules about how retailers can display them – there would be nothing to stop non-smokers taking up vaping. It’s very hard to believe Philip Morris wouldn’t welcome this.
The health risks of vaping
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 four 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,” Dr White said.
“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 said.
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 long-standing 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.”