Australia’s new vape crackdown divides scientists

With Federal Health Minister Mark Butler tackling youth vaping, a debate has surfaced between scientists on the impact of the legislation and how tightly vapes should be regulated, with one expert saying he is “gravely concerned”.

“We’re talking about decriminalising illicit drugs, and here we are criminalising a practice that smokers want to engage in to reduce their risk,” Emeritus Professor Wayne Hall from the National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research told Cosmos Science.

And Professor Ron Borland a Professor of Health Behaviour at the University of Melbourne, says while there is no reasonable doubt that vaping is a lot less harmful than smoking, “these changes are likely to increase smoking rates and thus increase the burden of ill health and premature mortality in Australia.”

“The government’s approach is an extension of the war on drugs to nicotine, but unlike the war on drugs, they are leaving the most harmful form, smoking, readily available. The war on drugs failed. It is likely that this policy will fail also.”

Others support the initiative. “It is pleasing to see Minister Butler take a stand against vested interests and introduce measures that will safeguard the health of Australians,” says Associate Professor Michelle Jongenelis, Deputy Director of the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at The University of Melbourne.

“In countries where these products are being treated as consumer goods that are available at your local convenience store, youth vaping rates have skyrocketed. The measures announced by Minister Butler will ensure these harmful products do not become the new tobacco cigarette.”

Vapes (also known as e-cigarettes) containing nicotine are currently illegal without a prescription within Australia. However, research has shown that at least some vape juice (or e-liquids) sold in Australia contains nicotine.

Anecdotally, it’s extremely easy to buy disposable nicotine vapes from most convenience stores – usually without an ID.

A study of 700 14-17-year-olds published in 2022, found one third had vaped, while 5% said they vaped regularly.  However, Australia only does nationwide drug surveys every three years, and so the increase in vaping use among young people over the last few years is hard to quantify.

“Despite it currently being illegal to sell or supply vapes of any kind to minors within Australia, research shows that youth do not view the current laws and regulations as a barrier to accessing these devices,” says Dr Courtney Barnes, a public health researcher at The University of Newcastle.

“Vapes are viewed by youth as easily accessible through convenience stores, online and peers. Given this, further regulatory and public health approaches to prevent youth uptake of vaping within Australia are clearly required.”

Although the new rules are yet to be formally announced, they include a complete ban of importing non-prescription vapes and of single use vapes. Certain colours and flavours will also be banned and the concentration of nicotine in a ‘pod’ will be reduced.

Vapes will also legally only be allowed to be sold in pharmacies and in ‘pharmaceutical-like packaging’.

However, it’s worth noting that although vaping is not safe it’s still considered safer than cigarettes by researchers and healthcare professionals.

“What seems to be lost in the concern about vaping is that we’re not doing anything about where cigarettes are sold,” says Hall.

“When the most dangerous product is readily available and we’re talking about restricting a less dangerous product. It’s like criminalising codeine and allowing heroin to be sold to corner stores.”

The heart of the matter is how we see vapes being used in Australia. On one hand, if vapes are to be used only as a smoking cessation aid, then ensuring that they are sold in pharmacies and treated as a ‘drug’ is important. According to scientists like Hall and Borland, cigarettes also need to be treated this way, otherwise people will just move back to cigarettes when vaping is less available.

“In my opinion, having studied many aspects of tobacco control over the last 36 years, I am gravely concerned that the government’s new policy will do more harm than good,” says Borland.

“I think there is a high likelihood it will result in an increase in the rates of tobacco smoking, even though it will achieve its proximal goal of reducing levels of vaping in the community.”

However, if vapes are considered a recreational adult product – like alcohol or cigarettes – these new changes are potentially an overreach. With talks about legalisation of cannabis, and the TGA recently approving psilocybin and MDMA for mental health treatment, flat out banning vapes is seen by some as a step backwards.

“What we should be thinking about doing is what New Zealand is now proposing to do, which is to severely cut the number of outlets that are licenced to sell tobacco products,” says Hall.

“That would put the onus on people selling them to obey the law because they’d be at risk of losing their licence in the long run, which is certainly not the case at the moment.”

Correction May 3, 2023: In our original report we incorrectly reported that Professor Ron Borland was a Deputy Director at the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change. Associate Professor Michelle Jongenelis serves in that role.

Please login to favourite this article.