It's only fair to share…

The vaping debate has reached an interesting point. We seem to have moved on from arguing the merits of vaping as being 95% less harmful than smoking. Most of the more recent debates has focussed on funding of charities dedicated to reducing the death and disease toll from smoking and conspiracy theories.

To better understand this let’s examine unlikely connections.

Connections can come in surprising ways. Senator Elizabeth Warren released DNA testing showing that she has between one in 64 and one in 1024 parts Native American Indian. All of us have 4096 people in our lineage if we go back 12 generations. It is likely we all have some ancestral input we would not expect.

Money makes connections as it flows and we may get a surprise as to where it has been before. Supporters of reducing the death and disease toll from smoking in Australia, through legalising vaping have been questioned over their funding.  Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA) does not accept money from tobacco companies. It received donations from small companies involved with vaping but was forced to remove acknowledgement due to government regulations about advertising. Transparency which necessarily involves names, is regarded as “promotional”.

Yet questions have been raised about virtually all donations received. This is generally to create the impression that any donation is somehow tainted by big tobacco.

This is where it gets interesting.

At what point is money the domain of the person or entity spending it and no longer anything to do with its prior “owner”. Let’s explore this when it comes to tobacco and public health.

Cigarettes are sold in packages, transported to shops and sold in various retail outlets. Any company involved in this process generates revenue from the sale of tobacco products. Following this logic, any donation to, say, the Heart Foundation or Cancer Council from any of these companies is tainted.

Has any health charity rejected such money?

Let’s go a step further. Employees of any company (e.g. a supermarket), which generates revenue from the sale of tobacco products, are paid wages which are in part due to sale of those tobacco products. In turn any donation to any health charity must, to follow the logic also be tainted.

I am yet to see any donation page ask for details of the donor’s employer.

And how far back do we need to go. In 12 generations one of a person’s 4096 ancestors may have worked in a part of the tobacco industry. Thus, any inheritance is tainted. I have never seen questions about this on “donate now” pages.

But it actually gets worse. Which entity gets a significant amount of money from cigarette sales? The government. Therefore, like “big tobacco” any money from government is tainted.

Universities are federal government funded. Any professor employed by a university is in receipt of wages that came from an entity which generated revenue from the sale of cigarettes. Any public health group receiving government funding is in the same boat.

Any doctor who accepts payments from Medicare (the government health insurer) is also receiving money from an entity which generates revenue from cigarette sales.

This will shock the AMA, whose West Australian organisation in a recent letter to members of parliament claimed that those who support vaping are “well funded”. For the record the board of ATHRA receives no payment and has a miniscule budget. It gets no government funding.

It is fascinating how public health always claims to be meek and broke. Yet as a de-facto arm of government it receives massive amounts of government money, generated in part from sales of cigarettes.

Even with only 25% of doctors as members the AMA generates significant revenue, is reliant on money which came from doctors who received money from the government which received money from the sales of cigarettes.

In the same letter the AMA claimed “we must not take our eyes off the ball”. Opponents of tobacco harm reduction appear to have lost interest in the ball (helping smokers) and are focussed on playing the man (supporters of harm reduction through vaping).

What is the bottom line here?

If we go back far enough in our own ancestry or that of the money currently in our pockets the origins may surprise. This is NOT an issue. The real issue is innovative ways to help smokers quit smoking and reduce their likelihood of smoking related disease or premature death.

The ball we need to focus on is reducing rates of smoking. Australia once led the world but now we lag well behind countries with legalised vaping.

Whether a board member of ATHRA once had a next door neighbour whose cousin’s, friend’s, brother once worked in an entity which generated money from tobacco sales, or whether such a person donated to entities supporting smokers wanting to quit smoking, is to use a pun, a smokescreen for the failure of Australia to keep up with the rest of the world.

The author is an unpaid director of Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association. (ATHRA)