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Michael Russell Award 2024 - presented to Dr. Colin Mendelsohn by Professor Gerry Stimson


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Gerry Stimson: And so we come to the second highlight of this evening, which is the presentation of the Michael Russell Award. The award acknowledges the insights that Mike Russell had in the 1970s about the individual and the public health gains that would come about by separating nicotine from its dirty delivery system, the cigarette. I had the privilege of working in the same research centre as Mike, and I think he had a great understanding of the needs of nicotine. He was a nicotine user himself. He didn't smoke cigarettes by then, but he liked the occasional cheroot. So I think he had a great compassion for what the issues are. The award is named after Mike with the kind permission of his family. The full potential of that vision, of his vision, is now realisable with the plethora of safer nicotine products. The switch to safer products is being driven by good products and, of course, by consumers, people who want to avoid smoking but wish to continue using nicotine. Governments can speed up that process, they can stand in the way, but I think the indicators are there about the right direction of travel. But it's an unrealised potential because of the antipathy towards tobacco harm reduction. That's why it's so important that the award recognises people who have made a special contribution to advancing tobacco harm reduction. The choice of the recipient is always difficult because there are so many people who deserve recognition. So I won't keep you in suspense. This is the Oscar moment, the awards moment. And let's just see. There's a rather odd ten zloty note in here. So it looks like we've doubled the prize from last year.

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Gerry Stimson: That's for later. So it's my pleasure to tell you that the 2024 Michael Russell Award goes to Colin Mendelsohn. Colin came to tobacco harm reduction after a long career in general practice and with a special interest in helping people to see smoking He educated general practitioners about helping smokers and helped develop national smoking cessation guidelines. One of the top national experts in the field of smoking cessation in Australia. Impeccable credentials. He became aware of vaping through his patients in 2014. In 2015, he visited smoking cessation experts in London. I met him in October 2015 and that didn't put him off his trajectory. and he came to GFN in 2016 and since then has never looked back. So his message, as the title of his book says, is stop smoking and start vaping. But in Australia, there's an almost universal hostile opposition to vaping from government departments, from health charities, and from medical and public health organisations. Impeccable credentials and no protection from hostile opposition, personal attacks, Attempts at censorship, rejection by medical journals, complaints to professional bodies and misrepresentation. Despite this, he's never given up or silently slipped away. Last year, he announced his retirement, but thank goodness that didn't last long. Once a tobacco harm reductionist, it never leaves you. So he is here today and he continues his good work. The second part of the title of his book is The Healthy Truth About Vaping. He spreads the truth about vaping in a multitude of articles, in meetings with parliamentarians, a newsletter for MPs, submissions to inquiries, in media briefings, through webinars, and much more. He is really a one-person advocacy organization. Australia will eventually give up its bizarre attempts to regulate vapes out of existence, and Colin will have helped make that happen. So Colin, the world is a better place because of you, and it's my great pleasure to present you with the 2024 Michael Russell Award. I'll leave you the 10-slotty note there. And I think you've got a few words to say. I'll leave you with this nice thing as well.

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Colin Mendelsohn: Oh, good. Thank you. I was hoping for a gold loggy, actually, but I guess that's not coming. Look, thank you very much, Sherry, for those kind words and this great honour. I first met Gerry, as he said, in October 2015. I developed an interest in tobacco harm reduction. Gerry visited me when he came to Australia and I must admit I've become much more involved since then. But over the next nine or ten years, well, it's been brutal in Australia. Advocacy in Australia has been very challenging. As Gerry said, there have been personal attacks, smears, harassment. I'm constantly accused of receiving tobacco company money, lots of dirty tricks, and that's been quite persistent over that time. So thank you very much, Gerry, for that, for your contribution to my being in that position. And I have a feeling that the reason I'm getting this award is partly because Jerry feels guilty about his role in what's been happening. But there have been light moments and I have some slides. I'm not quite sure how to control them. Here we go. Okay, do I control them or does somebody? No, somebody else does. Okay. So the first thing is, I get called lots of interesting names. The first one is, I'm Alex Wolek's Tweedledum to his Tweedledee. Apparently I'm the one on the left and he's the one on the right. The second one I quite liked is on the energiser bunny of vaping promotion. If we can just show that one. This is a little rabbit that goes around beating a drum and never stops. I'm not quite sure how to bring him on. Do we have a clicker? Oh, he's up there, okay. So that became my avatar for a while in social media. But my current favourite, oh, is there a clicker? Yes. Oh, up here, okay, thanks. My current appointment is as the Commander-in-Chief of Vaping Theology in Australia. These names have been offered to me by the leading vaping hater in Australia, who is well-known, I'm sure, to everyone. Look, I have tried to retire several times. Yes. As Gerry said, not once. But vaping advocacy is a very addictive behaviour, as I've discovered. And Ron Borland, who's probably Australia's leading smoking expert researcher, has called me Australia's Nellie Melba of tobacco harm reduction. And for those of you who don't know Nellie Melba, she's a famous opera singer from the 1920s in Australia. who was well known for her endless farewell appearances in concerts back in the 1920s after allegedly retiring. She just kept coming back, and I guess that's what's happening here. You're rather stuck with me. Australia's prescription model has been a resounding failure. It's really a lesson in unintended consequences. So the way it works is, if you want to vape, you get a prescription. Well, this guy's not getting a prescription, and the doctor's not going to give him one. And over 90% of Australia's 1.7 million vapers go to the black market. And the black market's controlled by organised crime, outlaw motorcycle groups. who sell important millions and millions of disposable vapes, and they're totally unregulated and they're sold freely. They compete, like with other drug wars, in a turf war to control markets here. And that involves, as we've heard today, firebombings, extortion, homicides, intimidation, just like in all other drug wars. And we've created this. The illicit tobacco market, the vape market is Australia's second biggest illicit drug market, which we've created. And of course these products are freely sold to young people and we have the highest rate of youth vaping, one of the highest rates in the world as a result. It's not made it harder for kids to get illicit vape products, it's made it easier. And, of course, there's the inevitable moral panic and the inevitable cry for more restrictions, which is what created the problem in the first place. It's clearly not working. But what bothers me is what Cliff was talking about earlier, which is the rampant misinformation about vaping and about nicotine. In Australia, policymakers endlessly quote two government-commissioned reports, this first one by our National Health and Medical Research Council, our peak health body, the second one by the Australian National University, both government-commissioned. Well, we did peer-reviewed critiques of both these reports. We found them to be full of scientific errors, misinformation, bias, and not fit for purpose. Both of our critiques, which are peer-reviewed with impeccable authors, were totally ignored in Australia. No media coverage, no government response, except go away, we know what we're doing. So what's driving policy in Australia? It's driven by everything but the evidence. It's driven by ideology. People should just quit. It's driven by moral outrage about kids using nicotine. It's politically risky. There's the hatred of big tobacco. We don't trust them. Anything they're associated with has to be a problem. Too many organisations benefit from the sale of tobacco and the income from that. That's the financial considerations, financial tax. They're all together working in lockstep. And there's a fear of innovation and competing values. Different things are important to different people. That's what's driving resistance to, not the science, that's what's driving the problems we're facing. And finally, This misinformation is spread by otherwise respected organisations whom we should be trusting, and you all know who they are. These are some of the ones that are certainly involved in our area, but there are many others. And these messages are amplified by the media. And some of these headlines are all very familiar. There's the inevitable erectile dysfunction and the lung transplant due to nicotine vaping. I mean, it just goes on, and that's unbelievable. And our health minister says exactly the same things. The media is mostly, not always, but mostly negative, critical, sometimes wildly inaccurate, often imbalanced. The articles don't have, there's no opportunity for someone to speak to this misinformation, which is why I wrote my book. So the book was basically about getting the real evidence out there. It didn't seem to be available through any other format. Our health minister in a radio interview a couple of days said this, I'm determined to drive the vaping industry out of the country Rather than being an opportunity, vaping is a scourge on public health, apparently, in Australia. That's what we're up against. But I changed the slides just before I came up because I had a big win last night. So a year ago I was shown on a national current affairs program as a representative of big tobacco. It was very clear that I was a representative of big tobacco. A hit job, the usual sort of thing. I complained to the television channel and they said go away. Of course we didn't mean that. The regulator disagreed with them and last night they published an apology on their website. So we occasionally have wins. That's one that was particularly satisfying, won't make a lot of difference, makes me feel better. Of course it'll get no media in Australia. We don't publish good news about vaping but we're very quick to publish any potential negative news. I wanted to thank two very special people before I finish. Clive Bates, and I don't know if Clive's here, but I have to thank Clive for his leadership and his guidance, which has been absolutely inspiring. And, of course, my very good friend Alex Wodak for his support and wisdom. Thank you, Alex and Clive. Thank you. And without them, I'm sure I would have given up long ago. Thank you very much.