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Making a call on passive vaping

Posted by Martin Palin

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Nov 10, 2017 11:18:30 AM

I’m calling it on passive vaping.

I say that in 15 years scientists will conclude that the public health risks associated with second hand vaping are negligible.

I’ve looked at the research, considered the importance of quantities in relation to toxins, reflected on my own experiences, used a dose of deduction and I’m calling it.

vaping free image

My mates play a game where we entertain each other by framing a market around public affairs. What price the latest public figure before ICAC to be found corrupt? What odds Nathan Tinkler makes a successful commercial comeback before 2020 ($150 I reckon).

I’m like bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse on my pick in this week’s Melbourne Cup (Single Gaze) before they jumped. He said “I’ve been wrong before but I wrote her as $100”. How right he was.

So that’s me and the prospect of finding some major public health disaster associated with being in the same space as someone vaping. Write your own ticket.

I’ve got form in the debate around passively inhaled air-borne stuff. I ran QUIT in NSW in the early 1990s and I was well motivated to prosecute the case against passive smoking. I’d spent most of the ‘80s chasing bands around Sydney pubs and knew firsthand the way smoke inhaled second hand could screw up your night. The smoke would sit against the ceiling and the coughing (and stinking clothes) the day after just screamed personal health risk.

We ran a moderately successful campaign where we made our point by inventing a new brand of cigarettes called “Other People’s” (get it?) and (notwithstanding a bit of creative epidemiology) made some pretty compelling noise via a well-oiled PR machine.

It was 1993, I had a newly stamped Master’s Degree in public health, all the anti-smoking advocates were on the same team and I was all fired up and ready to go.

But it’s 2017 now and vapour is not smoke. And I can scarcely think of another topic that has so polarised the public health community as e-cigarettes.

Anyway, checkout Hajek, Etter, Benowitz et al. Sure there are toxins in vapour but the quantities are so miniscule they are unlikely to cause any problems. I’m essentially backing their conclusion to hold true that while the long-term health effects of electronic cigarette use are unknown, “compared with cigarettes, e-cigarettes are likely to be much less, if at all, harmful to users or bystanders”. Which makes sense given most of the harm from cigarette smoke is from the chemicals produced by burning tobacco leaves. E-cigarettes involve no burning, smoke or tobacco.

Better still, find a bunch of vapers who are happily puffing on their e-cigarettes and go stand next to them. Weird eh? Not the habit. I mean the fact you hardly smell or sense anything at all.

That’s because it’s not smoke. It’s vapour.

I just returned from a holiday in Phuket where I learnt that French tourists still think it is ok to sit next to you on a beach puffing stinky cigarette smoke into the air. I can get just as offended as the next anti-smoking zealot.

And while we’re on that subject, let’s not forget what was really behind the obsession with second hand smoke in the 1990’s. The subtext was around how incredibly bad smoking cigarettes was for you if the second hand stuff could put you in a box. The more we stigmatised and isolated smokers the more likely it was – we reasoned – they would quit.

How terrible now if misguided concerns about second hand vaping – an incorrect punt about what the evidence might show in the future - played a role in preventing Australian smokers from accessing a less harmful alternative to combustible cigarettes.

So leave your ideology and your misconceptions about vapour at the door. It’s time for some rational deduction and some common sense.

I’m not making any predictions about policy decisions on e-cigarettes in the future. There are strong voices out there with determined views. The creative use of emerging science and strategic political advocacy in our society can generate unlikely legislation. Someone else can frame that market.

But passive vaping? You can barely do if you try.

The odds of second hand vapour turning into some longer term public health crisis? As Robbie Waterhouse would say, it’s the lay of the decade.


Competing interests: Martin Palin has at various times in his career been paid to run campaigns that highlight the risks of second hand tobacco smoke, educate smokers about nicotine replacement therapy as a quit smoking aid, discourage students from taking up smoking and promote vaping as a less harmful alternative to smoking cigarettes for smokers who find it difficult to quit.


Topics: PUBLIC HEALTH, Vaping, E-Cigarette, Nicotine


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