The Australian Medical Association has accused David Littleproud and the Nationals of taking the advice of the tobacco lobby over health experts on vaping and accused the junior Coalition party of seeking “to gamble with people’s health”.

Ahead of a crucial vote on the government’s anti-vaping restrictions in parliament this week, the AMA president, Prof Steve Robson, claimed the Nationals’ suggestion of regulating vapes the same way as cigarettes is “a tax grab that shows a complete disregard for the health of Australians”.

In a blistering letter to Littleproud, Robson warned nicotine vapes could contain chemicals including acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and benzene, and heavy metals such as nickel or lead, including some known to cause cancer and disease.

“It is incomprehensible that when confronted with these facts your party appears to want to gamble with people’s health while waiting for more evidence to emerge,” Robson wrote in the letter to Littleproud obtained by Guardian Australia.

“By then, it will be too late and you will have only worked to serve the interests of the vaping and tobacco lobby.”

Littleproud said in a response that his party “do not contest the science or health impacts of nicotine … but the AMA’s level of expertise and advice ends there. They have no experience in border protection or broader regulation and policing.”

The government legislation, the third tranche of Labor’s anti-vaping rules, would outlaw domestic manufacture, advertisement, supply and commercial possession of non-therapeutic vapes. Vapes would only be available with a prescription from a doctor, as a genuine therapeutic tool to quit smoking. Previous legislation banned importation of vapes and increased enforcement activity.

However the Nationals have strongly opposed that plan. Littleproud said in March it was “the unanimous position of the National party that we need to regulate vapes the same as cigarettes”.

“We need better regulation, not prohibition. Prohibition hasn’t worked,” Littleproud said at the time.

The Nationals MP Pat Conaghan has been leading development of a Nationals vaping policy, understood to include selling vapes only at specialist stores and age restrictions on access.

Vapes to be available only via prescription as ‘therapeutic pathway’ under new bill – video

The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, also raised doubts about a prohibition model but stressed his party was coming to the issue from a “completely different position” to the Nationals, saying instead his colleagues wanted more focus on harm minimisation.

In the letter, Robson wrote of the AMA’s “deep disappointment” over the Nationals’ stance and expressed concern about the effects of vaping on children’s brains.

“Nicotine use has been demonstrated to have negative impacts on cognition, reasoning and attention while it is also associated with mood disorders,” Robson wrote.

“With great respect, vaping represents one of the most significant public health challenges that Australia faces, and the medical profession is renowned for providing credible and trusted advice on public health policy.”

Approached for comment, Littleproud told Guardian Australia that the Nationals backed “greater regulation in the sale of vape products”.

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“The current policy which is effectively a prohibition model has not worked since less than 10% of Australians that vape have a prescription, therefore the only people benefiting from this approach are organised crime,” he said.

“We should regulate these products’ point of sale to 18+, contents and to licensed retailers like current cigarette sales and ensure any excise is spent on educating Australians of the health risks and regional health.”

The government’s bill to all but outlaw recreational vaping will be considered by the Senate on Monday, re-igniting a political fight on the health measure. The bill passed the lower house in May, and will now be debated in the upper house, where the government will require the support of at least one of the Nationals, Liberals or Greens partyrooms to pass their changes into law.

Littleproud has previously held out the prospect of the Nationals taking a different position to the Liberals on the vaping reforms.

The government wants its changes to come into force from 1 July, which would require the bill to pass the Senate this week. Government sources said they were still engaging across the Senate to seek support for the changes.

The positions of the Liberals and Greens are still unclear.

Liberal sources said the party was concerned about children accessing vapes and whether the government’s changes could accelerate the hidden market. The shadow health minister, Anne Ruston, said the Coalition was “working through our internal processes before we finalise our position” on the bill.

“We note significant concerns raised through the inquiry that entrenching the failing prescription-only model will not prevent children from having access to vaping products and will further drive the sale of these products to the black market,” she said.

The Greens’ health spokesperson Jordon Steele-John’s office did not return requests for comment.

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