Top doctor calls for total ban on cigarettes, switch to e-cigarettes

A leading Australian health researcher has called for a total ban on cigarettes as a new study finds millions of deaths could be prevented if smokers switched to electronic cigarettes. 

Menzies School of Health researcher Dr Marita Hefler says the rapid evolution of alternative nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes, meant outlawing combustible tobacco, including cigarettes, was now possible.

Though e-cigarettes and other vaping products are growing more popular, they haven't proven to be as much of a boon to the tobacco giants as expected. Photo: iStock

"Any other consumer product that kills up to two-thirds of its long-term users remaining legal is unimaginable,"Dr Hefler said. 

"Even if the political will had existed for a sales ban, until recently, no products could match the nicotine delivery efficiency of combustible tobacco with substantially less harm, rendering a sales ban a non-viable option due to the risk of a black market."

Dr Hefler's push comes in the wake of findings of a new study in the United States which examined the health impacts of a large-scale switch from tobacco to e-cigarettes

According to projections from cancer researchers at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, up to 6.6 million cigarette smokers could live a combined 86.7 million years longer under policies that encourage them to swap their smokes for e-cigarettes.

Even under the worst-case scenario projection, where e-cigarettes turn out to be more harmful than currently believed, researchers argued 1.6 million premature deaths would still be avoided, with 20.8 million fewer life-years lost.

E-cigarettes and vapour devices heat a nicotine juice into an aerosol which is then inhaled by the user.

Using the nicotine-based products in Australia is currently illegal as it is classed as a poison by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Debate about the potential benefits and risks of e-cigarettes has divided the public health community in recent years, with a federal parliamentary inquiry examining whether the devices should be legalised in Australia.

Tobacco control activists want to leave the regulatory framework now in place unchanged, preventing the use of e-cigarettes in Australia.

Dr Hefler, who was a researcher in the study, however, said combustible tobacco was by far the most harmful end of the nicotine product spectrum. 

"E-cigarettes, and more recently heat-not-burn tobacco products, most closely mimic, and therefore have the greatest potential to displace combustible tobacco," she said.

"While they are not harmless they are almost certainly lower risk than cigarettes for current smokers."

In conjunction with phasing out cigarette sales, Dr Hefler is recommending that the less harmful products including e-cigarettes are permitted in Australia with tight regulations equivalent to what is currently applied to cigarettes.

Ongoing independent research is also needed into the long term effects of using e-cigarettes, as knowledge is still evolving, Dr Hefler said.

According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco kills up to half of its users.

More than seven million people per year die from tobacco-related illnesses.

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