The Guardian • Issue #1980

Government closes loophole on e-cigarettes

Changes to the law on 1st October will make it illegal to possess or import an e-cigarette (or “vape”) containing liquid nicotine without a prescription. It is currently unlawful to supply vapes containing liquid nicotine, but a loophole in the law means that it is not illegal to import or possess one. Currently, around 500,000 Australians vape, and more than double that number have tried it at least once.

From 1st October, it will also be illegal to supply any product containing liquid nicotine that is not in child-proof packaging. Under the new laws, proof of prescription must be included with all packages imported in Australia. Border Force will be authorised to destroy all products which are not accompanied by a prescription, and fines of up to $220,000 will apply.

Once the ban comes into effect, chemists will also be authorised to supply nicotine liquid to anyone with a valid prescription. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is urging people who use liquid nicotine for therapeutic purposes to contact their doctor now to arrange a prescription before 1st October.

The science is not conclusive on whether e-cigarettes are effective at helping people to quit smoking, and some studies point to a higher risk of relapse in non-smokers who use e-cigarettes. Anecdotally, however, they are used by ex-smokers for this purpose. Furthermore, they are currently being regulated by the TGA as a smoking cessation product.

The problem is that the number of doctors who are authorised to prescribe nicotine in Australia is very low and access to healthcare is suffering due to the pandemic. Regional towns, in particular, have a chronic shortage of doctors. On top of this, some vapers say it is “humiliating” to have to go to a doctor for nicotine products, especially when smokers can easily buy cigarettes at any convenience store, supermarket or petrol station. Similarly, alcohol is considered a dangerous drug but it is available readily without a prescription.

The rationale behind the ban is to prevent young people from vaping nicotine, which is a potential gateway to smoking cigarettes. Misleading statistics on this issue are rife, with some sources reporting epidemic proportions of vaping among young people. In reality, around 10.2 per cent of people aged 18-24 currently vape. This is only slightly higher than the percentage of people in this age group who smoke on a daily basis, around 9.2 per cent. The percentage of young people aged 14-17 who vape is much lower, at 1.8 per cent.

Once the ban comes into effect, ex-smokers will face a difficult choice: if they cannot make it to a GP who is authorised to prescribe them nicotine, they can break the law or go back to smoking. If the government is truly interested in helping people quit smoking, this is not the way to go about it. As one Sydney GP said to the ABC, “People are dying [from cigarettes] and that’s a fact and right now, doctors know that vaping is safer than smoking.”

The ban is based on alarmist misinformation and is not actually in the best interests of Australians. The statistics do not support the alarmist reporting of a spike in vaping among young people. Moreover, people who vape in order to give up tobacco will suffer under the ban while cigarettes remain readily available. As with all drugs, criminalisation will not stop the use of liquid nicotine and will only make recovery harder for those already addicted.

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