A national vaping lobby group donated a total of $44,000 to the Liberal Party, but the money was declared as personal gifts by the director on election declarations.
Four Corners has discovered the donations were made as part of a series of “roundtables” with coalition MPs and came amid furious disagreements within the former government over the future of e-cigarettes – or vaping – in Australia.
It is illegal to sell or own nicotine vaporizers in Australia without a prescription.
A thriving black market has emerged with cheap disposable devices being sold on social media and under the counter in major tobacconists across the country.
As authorities struggle to stamp out illegal sales, the vaping industry and lawyers – including some politicians – continue to push for broad legal access.
The Fighting Fund
According to electoral records, the Liberal Party received sums of $20,000, $15,000, $7,000 and $2,000 from 33-year-old Sydney man Brian Marlow last fiscal year.
Mr Marlow is the director of Legalize Vaping Australia, which campaigns for the right to buy and sell nicotine-containing vapes. The organization is an offshoot of a libertarian activist group, the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Mr Marlow is also a friend of Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes, who is one of the coalition’s fiercest advocates for vaping as a means of smoking cessation.
Senator Hughes says their friendship has nothing to do with her position.
“Surprisingly, I am actually able to form my own opinion on certain things. This may come as a shock to some people, but there are women in the Liberal Party who have their own opinion and are able to control what they think on an issue.”
Senator Hughes chaired a Senate committee inquiry into vaping in late 2020, in which she said vaping was a form of “tobacco harm reduction” that had helped her go 60 days without a cigarette.
The senator’s comments on the effectiveness of vaping as a smoking cessation method run counter to research published in a government-commissioned report and the latest findings from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The $44,000 in donations were stated as coming from Mr Marlow personally: the disclosure forms make no mention of Legalize Vaping Australia or any vaping interests.
After canceling an interview with Four Corners, Mr Marlow responded in writing, revealing that the real source of the donation was Legalize Vaping Australia.
In mid-2020, the organization set up a “fighting fund” to oppose the changes to vaping regulations.
“After the former Minister of Health [Greg Hunt] Announcing a ban on imports of vaping products, with two weeks’ notice and no consultation, vape shops across the country have donated more than $100,000 to our organization in less than a week,” he said.
“In addition, we held a series of roundtable events on vaping to give working class workers and shop owners the opportunity to engage in long-term contact with MPs.”
Mr Marlow said these roundtables were one with Senator Hughes, who was pictured with him on Facebook, as well as vaping attorney Colin Mendelsohn, who is her prescribing physician, and a number of vape shop owners.
When asked why he had stated that the donations came from himself and not from the Legalize Vaping Australia fighting fund, Mr Marlow said it would have been easier to do so.
“Trying to get multiple store owners, multiple employees, in multiple states and have them pay for each individually and pay for each roundtable ticket etc. would have been too much work and akin to trying to herd cats,” he said.
“To make it easier, I paid for everything, which meant I had to file the relevant returns.”
Mr Marlow denied that the source of the donations was hidden. He declined to say which other politicians had attended roundtables or to explain in detail how the payments relate to the events.
When Four Corners asked for more clarification, Mr Marlow declined, saying “I really can’t be bothered to waste any more of my time trying to explain the obvious bleeding.
“Enjoy your smear campaign.”
Senator used vaping to quit smoking
In an interview held before Four Corners learned the true source of the donations, Senator Hughes said she did not know what Mr Marlow had given to the party.
“It is not illegal to donate to the Liberal Party. There is nothing wrong with donating to the Liberal Party,” she said.
Four Corners later sent written questions to the senator about her knowledge of any donations from the vape industry to the Liberal Party and her presence at the roundtable.
In a statement, Senator Hughes said: “The members of LVA [Legalise Vaping Australia] are the salt of the earth, everyday Australians.
“Many of these people – like me – are vaping enthusiasts who have turned to vaping in an effort to quit smoking.
“They usually have small, family-run vape shops and they’ve come together to represent their interests.
“As an elected representative, like all my colleagues, I regularly meet a variety of industry representatives and business owners on a range of topics.”
A party spokesman said in a statement: “The Liberal Party is disclosing donations to the Australian Election Commission in accordance with our obligations under the relevant funding and disclosure laws.”
Senator Hughes first became an advocate for vaping after discovering that it helped her quit social smoking.
†[I] got some of the vapes, tried it and never, ever looked back,” she said.
“So it was accidental quitting is probably the best way to describe it and I think that really re-emphasized to me how effective it can be as a smoking cessation aid.”
A government-commissioned study of vaping, led by Professor Emily Banks of the Australian National University, reported in April that there was limited evidence that vaping helped people quit smoking.
The same study found that vaping posed serious public health risks, including lung injury and nicotine addiction, and that vapers were three times more likely to smoke cigarettes.
Senator Hughes was one of 28 coalition backbenchers who wrote to then-Health Secretary Greg Hunt in mid-2020 to oppose a plan to ban personal entry of nicotine without a prescription.
“Greg and I disagreed about vaping,” she said. “It came mainly from the personal choice aspect of it.
“If you want to vape, if you want to smoke, if you want to have a nicotine tablet or spray, you should be able to do that.”
Senator Hughes and her pro-vaping Coalition colleague Matt Canavan were outnumbered in the 2020 Senate inquiry into vaping.
A majority of the committee, including Labor Liberal Sarah Henderson and Tony Sheldon, supported the sale of nicotine vapes only to those who have given up smoking on their doctor’s prescription.