Australia's medical community has called for a significant tightening of vaping laws, warning that the country is in danger of losing the public health battle without "strong action." With growing numbers of young people taking up vaping and the prevalence of black market nicotine-based vapes, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) is just one of many organisations urging the government to impose restrictions.
Tightening of Vaping Laws
In addition to a ban on personal importation, the AMA is advocating for tighter nicotine limits and protections for children against predatory advertising and product design. Plain packaging laws and a plan to combat illegal advertising, promotion and sales are also on the table.
Many of those pushing for tougher regulations argue that the growing number of young people using vaping products and the prevalence of black market nicotine-based vapes are significant issues with the current framework. Conversely, those who support looser regulations point to the booming black market and reported benefits for smokers trying to quit, as well as inconsistencies with tobacco laws.
Two Sets of Rules
Two sets of rules apply to nicotine vapes and the nicotine-free variety. In theory, obtaining nicotine vapes requires a doctor's prescription, typically as a last resort for those trying to quit smoking. However, there is anecdotal evidence of a vast black market. Although non-nicotine vapes are subject to many of the same restrictions as tobacco, tobacco control policy experts suggest that physical shops and the internet are a "major pathway" for purchasing the restricted variety.
Proposed Changes to Laws
The Therapeutic Goods Administration is exploring a significant overhaul of laws regarding importing, regulation, quality and safety standards, and targeting of children. Many of the relevant organisations have already released their submissions, which range from maintaining the status quo to a full TGA-based approval process for nicotine vapes and a near-total import ban.
Cancer Council CEO Todd Harper has called for a complete ban on all non-prescribed vaping products, citing the addiction of children as young as 12. Many health campaigners worry that vaping could hook a new generation on nicotine who might never have taken up smoking.
Is Vaping Safe?
Experts say that vaping is not harmless, safe, or part of tobacco control. Nicotine, in particular, is harmful and highly addictive, and the federal health department has identified cancer-causing agents such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acrolein in vapes. The AMA highlights figures showing a steady rise in Australians who vaped and notes particular concern that more than one in five people aged 18–24 tried a device in 2020–2021. Harmful and improperly labelled ingredients, including nicotine in non-nicotine vapes, are regularly found in vaping product liquids, and 31% of registered products have prohibited ingredients in concentrations exceeding the legal limit.
Arguments for Reducing Regulations
The strict regulations on vaping, according to some groups such as the Australian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS), have driven users towards a black market that is entirely unregulated and impossible to control. Rather than imposing further restrictions, they want nicotine-based vapes to be regulated in the same way as cigarettes, making them legally available in every convenience store and service station. The AACS claims that there are already 1.1 million vapers in the country.
Why the Laws Are Different from Tobacco
According to Professor Coral Gartner, the director of the National Health and Medical Research Council's Centre of Research Excellence on Achieving the Tobacco Endgame, the reason for the vastly different laws is a carve-out in national poisons regulations that exempts nicotine in cigarettes from the normal poisons regulations, which does not apply to vapes. She advocates for more similar laws for the two categories but believes that tobacco restrictions should be brought closer to nicotine vape regulations instead of the other way around.
The fact that most of the big tobacco companies now make vapes raises concerns about a repeat of the public health disinformation campaigns they used decades ago to cover up how deadly cigarettes are. Therefore, it is crucial to impose regulations to protect public health.
Does Vaping Help People Quit?
While there is some evidence to suggest that vaping can help people quit smoking, the safest option is to stick with better-studied, proven methods. A Cochrane Review found higher quit rates among people using nicotine vapes compared to other methods, such as gum or patches. However, the review cautions that more research is necessary to confirm the harms and benefits of using nicotine vapes for this purpose.
Anne Kelso, CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council, said that there are "other proven safe and effective options to help smokers quit," and that "e-cigarettes are not proven safe and effective smoking cessation aids."
Australia's peak doctors body has called for tighter vaping laws to prevent a generation of young people from becoming addicted to nicotine. With growing numbers of young people taking up vaping and the prevalence of black market nicotine-based vapes, the current framework needs to be addressed. However, some groups argue that strict regulations have driven users towards a black market that is unregulated and impossible to control. Therefore, the government needs to find a balance between imposing strict regulations to protect public health and preventing the proliferation of an unregulated black market. In the end, the public's health and well-being must be the priority.