Big tobacco covertly campaigning to sway vaping laws in Australia

Philip Morris Australia has flooded a parliamentary inquiry with personal stories of vaping fans.

Big tobacco company Philip Morris Australia is funding a covert campaign intended to sway a parliamentary inquiry into the legalisation of e-cigarettes containing nicotine.

The campaign comes after Philip Morris was ordered to pay as much as $50 million to cover the Australian government's legal costs as it failed in its case to kill off tobacco plain packaging laws.

According to a Fairfax Media report, the cigarette giant is using a pro-smoking lobby group it funds, dubbed "I deserve to be heard", together with supporters of a vaping forum to create a skewed view of the number of people in support of legalising e-cigarettes that contain nicotine.

Emails were sent out to supporters of the lobby group last month encouraging them to "make their voices heard" in a coordinated effort that would help Philip Morris enter a potentially billion-dollar market in Australia.

An overwhelming number of the submissions – 107 out of the 108 made, at the time of writing – express support for e-cigarettes, although the majority of them have been written to a uniform template and offer a first-person account on how vaping helped them wean off smoking.

Tobacco expert Simon Chapman, an emeritus professor at the University of Sydney, says the campaign was a tactic previously used by Philip Morris in a move to sway the debate surrounding plain packaging laws.

"They've been actively recruiting people to put in submissions," he told Fairfax Media. "These are exactly the same tactics they used for plain packaging. They have dusted off the same software, the same template and just changed the content."

Debate is ongoing when it comes to the health benefits of e-cigarettes. Supporters argue they are a healthier alternative to combustible cigarettes as they contain fewer toxic chemicals; detractors claim they undermine efforts intended to highlight the dangers of smoking and could once again appeal to younger generations.

Recent court action was taken against e-cigarette manufacturers selling their products online by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Testing undertaken by the competition watchdog found they contained carcinogens linked to the growth of cancer, which conflicts with advertising claiming the e-cigarettes being sold are safe.

The parliamentary committee is examining the use e-cigarettes might have on tobacco smoking rates, and if the rapidly growing category should be regulated as consumer tobacco or a medicinal product.

Correction, 18 Sept: An earlier version of this article did not clarify which type of e-cigarette was being discussed. It has been updated to reflect it was e-cigarettes containing nicotine.