68% of smokers say they would be open to switching to so-called "better alternatives" like e-cigarettes if they had more information about them, according to new research from tobacco company Philip Morris.
Just 43% of Australian smokers surveyed by Philip Morris feel they had all the information they need to make a switch, compared to 62% in Brazil and 66% in Hong Kong.
Obtaining that information in Australia is easier said than done. Nicotine vaping is not only illegal in Australia but there are also major restrictions in place on the language e-cig manufacturers can use.
Seven out of 10 smokers are open to switching from cigarettes to nicotine vaping but lack information to make that choice, according to new research — and in Australia, where some of the world's most draconian anti-vaping laws are in place, they are even more in the dark than others.
Getting caught in Western Australia with liquid nicotine for e-cigarettes, for example, can get you a whopping $45,000 fine, while in the ACT it can land you two years in prison.
And the rules are even tougher for the e-cigarette companies, who are forbidden from claiming their products can help you quit smoking, even though medical authorities like the UK's National Health Service have suggested precisely that.
Philip Morris International has now released a white paper presenting fresh evidence that "smoke-free alternatives" could be a catalyst for quitting.
Granted, you might not be interested in what an evil tobacco company thinks on this subject, and fair enough. But arguably they're also best-placed to assess the views of the world's remaining smokers.
On behalf of Philip Morris, researcher Povaddo surveyed 16,099 smokers and non-smokers across 13 countries including Australia, finding a significant number would consider leaving cigarettes behind for "smoke-free products" like nicotine e-cigarettes.
Globally, 68% of smoker respondents said they would be more likely to make the switch away from cigarettes if they had reliable information about the differences between various nicotine methods and products. In Australia, 43% said they have the information they need to make a choice about switching, compared to 62% in Brazil and 66% in Hong Kong.
The Australian cohort of the survey — which was made up of 1,238 respondents, of which 11% are current smokers and 4% are occasional smokers — indicated they believe there could be benefits to switching and talking about the topic openly.
Don't mention the e-cigarettes
The lack of information experienced by Aussie smokers is understandable, given the unique vaping regulation down under.
Australia has taken a particularly strict stance not only on the substances you can legally vape, but also the way that e-cigarette manufacturers and distributors can market themselves.
"Under current laws relating to nicotine, it is illegal to sell, buy, or use e-cigarettes that contain nicotine in Australia," government agency Health Direct explains.
"You can legally buy e-cigarettes that do not contain nicotine. However, it’s illegal for manufacturers to claim that these can help you quit smoking.
"It is also illegal to sell products that look like cigarettes or cigars in some states."
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has been outspoken in his opposition to vaping, describing the far more lax American system as a "public health disaster".
He is backed by the Cancer Council, which argues " widespread electronic cigarette use could undo the decades of public policy work in Australia that has reduced the appeal of cigarette use" and points to "anecdotal evidence" of vapes being confiscated in schools.
Or in the eternal words of Mrs Lovejoy: "Would somebody please think of the children".
He is also backed by a parliamentary inquiry into the use and marketing of e-cigarettes and vaporisers, which recommended in March 2018 that nicotine vaping shouldn't be legalised.
But while there are restrictions on what e-cigarette companies can say to consumers, the government hasn't quite managed to muzzle all supporters of smoke-free alternatives — including within its own ranks.
In a dissenting report to that government inquiry, Coalition MPs Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman – who actually chaired the probe – pointed out that Australia is on the more extreme end of regulating vaping compared to countries like the US, UK and New Zealand.
Health experts in these countries have been far more willing to acknowledge that vaping could be useful in helping people quit smoking, the MPs wrote.
They also pointed out the ridiculous contradiction in Australian law whereby "the use of tobacco-based products for smoking is legal, yet a less harmful nicotine product is effectively prohibited".
Fellow Liberal MP Andrew Laming's own dissenting report came to a similar albeit more succinct conclusion. "Life is short and shorter for smokers," he wrote. "Just legalise vaping."
These noisy backbenchers have been successful in getting another inquiry off the ground, which is due to report back by December 2020. But it's not only politicians who say Australia's laws have gone too far.
The Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association is run by leading public health doctors Alex Wodak, Colin Mendelsohn and Joe Kosterich — and they argue legalising vaping is the only way to reach the government's target of reducing the smoker rate from 14% to 10%.
Lobby group Legalise Vaping — which is financed by libertarian think-tank the Australian Taxpayers Alliance and claims it does not take money from tobacco companies — goes further, arguing that changing the strict Australian laws will actually save lives.
While it might not be allowed to contribute to the Legalise Vaping campaign — or market the alleged benefits of its e-cigarette products to consumers — at least one tobacco company is not shutting up on the issue.
"While the best choice is to quit cigarettes and nicotine altogether, the reality is that many people don’t [and] ... there are better options available to adult smokers who don’t quit," a Philip Morris spokesperson said in a statement accompanying the survey results.
"There urgently needs to be a new global conversation – based on scientific research and facts – about these alternatives."
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.