Dr Freeman says the tobacco industry is still their biggest challenge and are responsible for driving smoking rates around the world while still pushing back against effective public health regulations. According to her research, tobacco companies do, and will continue to, play on the misconceptions around nicotine addiction, and manipulate communication strategies and public health policy addressing tobacco control.
“When you look at what they say versus what they do, these products are just an addition, they’re to keep people in smoking, they’re to introduce customers to a lifelong addiction,” she says. “We do not want to see smoking rates start to climb back up in Australia. We’ve made incredible gains, it’s really unusual now for a young person to take up smoking, and we need to protect that.”
However, Dr Wodak says that it’s a “common pattern” for any new drug harm reduction intervention introduced to a country, including Australia, to face vigorous opposition. But the extent of it and both the hostility and the number of people in public health and tobacco control who are anti-vaping is very unusual.
“We saw exactly this happen with methadone treatment for people struggling with street heroin problems. We saw it with needle and syringe programs to slow down the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs ... We saw it with many drug consumption rooms like we have in Kings Cross Sydney and North Richmond Melbourne.”
That’s the difference between harm reduction intervention and regulating something out of existence, harm reduction takes on an almost “enemy of my enemy” approach. Back in the 80s, Dr Wodak was very involved with efforts to try and slow down the spread of HIV, among and from, people who inject drugs. He observed that during the HIV epidemic, some drug traffickers would hand out clean needles because they didn’t want to see their customers “killed off”.
“Now, does that mean I should oppose needle exchange? Of course not, I was pleased that some drug traffickers – some of them – were handing out clean needles and syringes when they were selling street drugs,” he says.
“Fundamentally, it’s a battle between prohibition, people who support banning something completely, with people who say, ‘well we can’t get rid of this, but let’s try and make sure as few people get hurt as possible’”.