greg hunt
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

It’s been a while since Australia saw overt political lobbying from the tobacco industry. But there are signs that things may be ramping up. 

On Friday Health Minister Greg Hunt caved to pressure from within his own party to delay new restrictions on importing liquid nicotine, used for vaping. 

It followed a letter from 28 Liberal and National MPs condemning the restrictions, arguing vaping was a healthier alternative to smoking. 

Hunt eventually gave in to the backlash, saying he would delay the reform by six months.

So why the sudden revolt over the ban? And why are the Nationals — a party designed to represent the interests of rural Australians — leading the charge to protect the interests of the vaping industry, which contributes almost nothing to the Australian economy? 

Follow the money

The answers may lie in political donations. The National Party is the only major political party in Australia still accepting donations from tobacco companies, with Labor and the Liberal Party banning them in 2004 and 2014, respectively.

In the past five years the National Party has collected $120,000 from Philip Morris, which owns a stake in e-cigarette company Juul. Around $80,000 of that came in the last two years alone, according to returns filed with the Australian Electoral Commission. 

Nationals Senator Matt Canavan has been leading calls to block the latest reforms, telling Sky News on Friday that the push had widespread support from within the party. 

“It’s no secret that many Liberal and National members of the joint party room have been calling for a joint outcome,” he said. 

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, signatories to the letter include Nationals Barnaby Joyce, Bridget McKenzie, Llew O’Brien, Ken O’Dowd and Damian Drum. Liberal signatories include Eric Abetz, Jason Falinski, Trent Zimmerman, Dave Sharma, James Paterson, Hollie Hughes and Amanda Stoker.

Canavan is also behind a petition with George Christensen calling for an end to restrictions on imported liquid nicotine. 

University of Sydney public health school emeritus professor Simon Chapman, who has followed the lobbying efforts of tobacco companies for years, said the reason for the revolt was simple. 

“What’s going on here is just lobbying,” he said. “You’ve got an interest group which is the vaping industry which of course involves every single major tobacco company. It just really stinks.”

Smoking rates in Australia have declined significantly over the past two decades, from 22% in 2001 to 13% in 2017-18. But even so, tobacco still contributes to an estimated 21,000 deaths, or more than one in eight, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The US has also recorded at least 59 deaths linked to vaping, and Australian doctors have been urged to question patients about their use of e-cigarettes.

Hunt has committed to introducing the reforms in January and reiterated the health dangers of e-cigarettes. “This is why we need to drive down those smoking rates further,” Hunt said.

But it raises the question: why is the National Party still accepting donations from tobacco companies? And does it give companies a back door to influence the government? 

Crikey put these questions to the Nationals, and a spokesperson responded with:

“The Nationals strictly adhere to our electoral and legal requirements, including disclosing campaign contributions in accordance with the law.”

The Cancer Council warned any interference by tobacco and e-cigarette lobbyists could undermine Australia’s strong record in standing up to the industry.

“If [the reform] is undermined by vested interests making unsubstantiated claims, it will set a terrible precedent,” a spokesperson said.

Should the Nationals accept donations from tobacco companies? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.