From today, it will be illegal to import e-cigarettes without a doctor’s prescription.
Australia’s laws on liquid nicotine products have been in the works for over a year. In December, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) listed liquid nicotine as a schedule 4 poison, but delayed implementing the import ban following backlash from lobbyists and politicians.
For the past nine months, retailers have exploited this loophole, with unregulated vapes readily available under the counter from many convenience and tobacco stores (though the Australian Association of Convenience Stores contests this claim).
Vape proponents say there’s no evidence of the dangers of vapes and that they may help smokers quit — while opponents say it’s leading a new generation to get hooked on nicotine.
The rise of vapes
Big tobacco has started marketing itself as a friend of public health, peddling smoke-free nicotine products as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes.
In January last year, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners approved the use of nicotine for vaping for smokers who have tried other methods and failed to quit. While there is some evidence e-cigarettes may help smokers cut back or even quit nicotine, there is limited clinical data — with some studies showing vapes may even hinder attempts to quit.
Tobacco companies have been accused of marketing brightly-coloured, fruit flavoured vapes to children, with one company even purchasing ads on teen-focused websites for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Seventeen magazine.
Between 2016 and 2019 there was up to a four-fold increase in e-cigarette usage between those aged 14 to 29. In NSW, some private schools have installed CCTV cameras to catch students vaping. From April 2020 to March this year, NSW has seized more than 51,000 illegal e-cigarettes.
The TGA has argued nicotine is highly addictive like heroin and cocaine, with international research funded by the World Health Organization finding an association between vaping among non-smokers and increased use of cigarettes later down the line.
Unregulated vapes have also been found to contain household disinfectants, petroleum, cosmetics, paint and other chemicals which may affect respiratory health. Lung injuries associated with vaping which emerged in 2019 were due to vitamin E acetate, an ingredient since removed in most vaping products.
What delayed the ban?
When Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the new nicotine restrictions in June last year, lobby groups were up in arms, with 28 Liberal and National MPs writing a letter condemning Hunt’s restrictions. The National Party is the only major political party in Australia still accepting donations from tobacco companies.
Some politicians have questioned the timing of the restrictions, arguing doctors should be focusing on administering COVID-19 vaccinations instead of nicotine prescriptions. Over 100,000 doctors are authorised to prescribe nicotine.
A petition has been also circulated around parliament arguing the ban persecutes the poor, the disabled and the pensioners of Australia who are addicted to nicotine but can’t afford cigarettes.
Others have said the laws show what a “nanny state” Australia is given the lack of long-term evidence of the dangers of vaping, pointing to New Zealand, which allows vape sales.
Is it too late?
The Australian Council on Smoking and Health chief executive Maurice Swanson tells Crikey the ban would “stop the illegal flow of disposable, highly addictive vaping products” sold to young people.
He said while the ban wasn’t too late, it would take some time to come into effect.
“Those addicted to nicotine would have stockpiled liquid nicotine products, but once those stockpiles have diminished they’ll have to go to their GP,” he said.
The prescription, which lasts 12 months with extensions available, will allow Australians to import nicotine of up to 100mg/mL concentration — more than five times the maximum allowed in Canada, the UK, and across the European Union.
“It will be critical for the TGA to monitor the impact and effectiveness of this nicotine prescription model and continue to ensure that children and young people are comprehensively protected from a lifetime of nicotine addiction,” Swanson said.