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Cancer Council divided over e-cigarettes

AAP logoAAP 6/09/2016 Belinda Merhab

A top Cancer Council researcher says Australia's ban on nicotine e-cigarettes is bad policy that is difficult to defend.

This puts him at odds with the council's official stance.

The medicines regulator has been asked to exempt nicotine from the Schedule 7 dangerous poisons list, at concentrations of 3.6 per cent or less, to try to reduce the harm caused by tobacco.

Dozens of academics and researchers have written to the Therapeutic Goods Administration in support of the application, calling for the ban to be lifted.

One submission, co-authored by Cancer Council researcher Ron Borland, says current laws are difficult to defend - a position at odds with the Cancer Council.

Prof Borland told AAP opponents of e-cigarettes were over-interpreting dubious information.

"Most of the evidence against us is dodgy," he said.

In the submission based on personal views, Prof Borland says e-cigarettes are being treated the same way as cocaine and heroin while the most dangerous tobacco products, cigarettes, remain freely available.

The Cancer Council wants the ban on nicotine to stay.

Kylie Lindorff, chair of the council's tobacco issues committee, says there is inconclusive evidence the devices help people quit smoking.

"While they might be less harmful, they're not harmless," she told AAP.

Opponents say big tobacco will use the devices as another opportunity to get people hooked and renormalise smoking.

They say e-cigarettes could act as a gateway to smoking for young people or a crutch preventing smokers from quitting altogether.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris sells e-cigarettes in Japan and some European countries, while e-cigarette company Nicoventures is owned by British American Tobacco.

Philip Morris published its own research on Wednesday, reporting on its progress in developing "reduced-risk" alternatives to cigarettes - a move Ms Lindorff describes as yet another attempt by the industry to reinvent itself.

Another submission to the TGA, backed by 40 international and Australian academics including drug reform advocate Alex Wodak, says e-cigarettes will save lives.

It's discriminatory and unethical to allow the sale of tobacco while banning a "much lower-risk" alternative, they argue.

It would also avoid risks associated with buying nicotine on the black market - a one-year supply can be bought online for just $2.60.

"I just don't understand the logic of having nicotine in the deadly form of tobacco cigarettes widely available while nicotine in the much safer form of e-cigarettes is outlawed," said Professor Ann McNeill from Kings College London.

"The current situation in Australia protects the cigarette business, encourages smoking and increases the risk of disease."

The researchers say smokers who switch to e-cigarettes could avoid at least 95 per cent of the smoking risks for cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness.

They say there's no credible evidence to suggest e-cigarettes undermine tobacco control, reduce quit rates or encourage young people to take up smoking.

The TGA is expected to make an interim decision on the application by the New Nicotine Alliance, a not-for-profit body that advocates safer alternatives to tobacco smoking, in February.

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