Hello and welcome. I'm Joanna Junak and this is GFN News on GFN.TV. In today's program,
Alex Wodak, one of the authors of the paper that criticized the NHMRC position statement
on electronic cigarettes, will share his thoughts on their findings. Alex is a retired physician,
one of the founders of the drug harm reduction movement and the former president of the
Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation. Alex will be joining us at GFN23 in Warsaw this June.
Hello Alex. First, can you tell us what the NHMRC review of vaping in Australia was about?
Well, the National Health and Medical Research Council, usually abbreviated to NHMRC, is
the most prestigious national medical scientific body in the country. Most countries have a similar
kind of organization and they're held in very high regard. The issue of vaping is
controversial in Australia. They set up a committee to investigate vaping and
a group of us, 11 altogether, led by Colin Mendelsohn, Dr Colin Mendelsohn, and 10 others,
seven major international figures, four of us from Australia, wrote a critique of the report.
And the critique was really pretty negative. And it was negative really from beginning to end.
It was negative about the fact that the committee wasn't balanced. There are seven or eight members
on the committee. At least three of them had been very outspoken many, many times
in criticism of vaping. They not only didn't support it, but they were very negative about it.
And some of the others worked for organizations that were also very negative about it. There
was no one on the committee who was known to be neutral or even positive. So that was
disappointing. And then I think to sum it up, the committee used a previous report that had
been commissioned by the Minister for Health, which we were also very disappointed in and very
critical of. And they used that as though it was kind of gospel truth. And really their conclusions
didn't follow from the data. I think that's putting it in a nutshell. They considered that the
negatives of vaping were given much greater weight than any positives of vaping. So it wasn't a
balanced, proper scientific report. If it had been a balanced scientific report, we would have
happily accepted it, even if the conclusions weren't what we'd hoped for. But it was a very
unbalanced, unscientific approach. It was really more a political document. So we published a
pretty savage critique of it. And it's really been ignored within Australia. And that's also very,
very disappointing. So that's the issue we're really talking about tonight.
What were the main findings of the critique of this review published in the journal Addiction?
Well, the main recommendation that we made was that the report on vaping should not be
accepted, and that it should be rejected, and that another independent quality review
should be carried out. That was really the main recommendation, because we were so
critical, and I think with very good reason, of the report that was handed in. So
there are so many flaws, and it wasn't as if there were one or two things we disagreed with.
There were multiple severe flaws that are just unacceptable.
Are investigations like this unusual in the international debate about tobacco harm reduction?
Unfortunately, it's not unique by any means. And there are a number of other reports that
have also been very negative, and have also had a very poor scientific value. So
this is, I can accept that it's a contentious area, I can accept that people have different views,
but we do have scientific ways of investigating things as they are, and that's what we're
trying to do. We do have scientific ways of investigating things and evaluating data,
and this was not a balanced scientific evaluation of the data, and a number of other reports suffer
from the same fault from multiple countries. So it's a systemic problem rather than something
that is unique to Australia. And I think that point is really very, very important. The whole
debate suffers from an appalling lack of standards, and it's true that there are faults on both sides
to some extent, but I think it's very clear that most of the faults are on the side of the people
who really, they hate vaping and hate tobacco harm reduction, without being able to make a
cogent scientific argument about why they hate it. And that's very disappointing,
and it means that the whole issue is very hard to deal with.
Are there parallels with the experience of scientific rules and traditions not being
respected in other controversies and debates? Unfortunately, the answer to that is yes, and
I've been involved in the debates about drug policy reform for the last 40 years,
and the debates about harm reduction in particular. And the parallels are really
very striking. We have had many, many reports, particularly from the United States, but not only
from the United States, regarding drug policy that were really much more ideological and political
than they were scientific. And it really makes the issue of trying to formulate policy very
difficult, because the basis of what we're trying to draw upon is itself so fragmented and so
uncertain. But yes, we had a lot of problems in the war on drugs. It's not quite as bad now as it
has been. Something you may not realize is that the United States government has an agency called
the National Institute of Drug Abuse, NIDA, and NIDA funds 80% of the illicit drugs
research in the whole world. So what NIDA comes up with has a huge influence not only within the
United States, but well beyond it. And a spokesperson for that organization said a few years ago
that we in NIDA don't try to, we try to find the sort of scientific basis of the harm done by
cannabis, and we don't fund research that might find benefits for cannabis. Now, sure, cannabis
will have harms, but we're now much more confident that it's got benefits, and now NIDA has stopped
that practice, and they do now fund some research on potential benefits of cannabis. But I think
that shows very clearly the dangers that government organizations, wittingly or unwittingly,
serve the government of the day and try to curry favor with its views, rather than going straight
for the science and nothing but the science. So yes, unfortunately, there are a lot of parallels
between the war on drugs and the resistance to harm reduction all over the world, and what we're
now experiencing with tobacco harm reduction, another form of harm reduction after all,
and in particular with vaping. Final question for you, Alex. What is the end result when science
isn't respected in policy controversies? Well, one of the aspects of this whole issue
that we really need to think about is the extent to which these unscientific government-initiated
reports or government-funded reports not just make that issue itself hard to work with,
but also the extent to which they damage the reputation of science and scientists.
And in my view, they cause a lot of damage to science, and they cause a lot of the controversies
that we end up having about vaccination and issues like that, because people have come to learn that
you can't rely on government-funded reports on science. And so this is, again, this is
not unique to vaping. This is a general issue, and it's one of the reasons we have to really
clean up our scientific act in the vaping area and in other areas, so that the public comes to
have much more respect for what we're doing. Thank you, Alex. That's all for today. Don't
forget to book your place at GFN23 to hear more from Alex at his workshop looking at the
environmental impacts of tobacco harm reduction. Thanks for watching or listening. See you next time.