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Australia bans non-prescription vaping – Expert Reaction

Vapes with flavours and bright colours will be restricted, and non-prescription vape imports will be more tightly controlled in Australia.

The changes come as part of a host of new measures aimed at restricting the use of vapes in Australia.

In March the New Zealand government finished consultation on proposed measures to crack down on youth vaping.

The SMC gathered expert comment. 

Dr Kelly Burrowes, Auckland Bioengineering Institute, University of Auckland, comments:

“The Australian Government has made a bold move to ban the importation of non-prescription vaping products – including nicotine-free vapes. As well as this, they plan to restrict flavours, colours and other ingredients, ban all single-use disposable vapes, reduce nicotine concentrations and enforce pharmaceutical-like packaging. All steps to phase out recreational vaping.

“Australia is continuing to impose some of the strictest measures in the world around vaping, aside from countries that outright ban vaping (i.e. Singapore, Brazil).

“The Public Health Association of Australia’s CEO, Terry Slevin, described vaping as a “public health disaster”.

“The unprecedented uptake of electronic cigarettes around the world has been termed an epidemic. In NZ, 8.3% of adults report being vape users, and one in four high school students self-report as current users. While electronic cigarettes are generally thought to be safer than conventional cigarettes, and are currently deemed a promising smoking cessation aid, there is mounting evidence that vaping is not benign.

“Countries fall within a range from focussing on health promotion on one end to harm reduction at the other. New Zealand and the UK take a similar stance and largely consider e-cigarettes as a harm reduction tool. Australia on the other hand, take a health promotion approach whereby the use of e-cigarettes by non-smoking youth is the greater concern.

“New Zealand needs to impose stricter rules around the sale and use of vaping before it is too late.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr George Laking, Director Centre for Cancer Research, University of Auckland, comments:

“We should not follow Australia’s lead on laws restricting vaping: people who smoke need help to stop, and vaping is an important part of that. It is necessary to strike a balance with youth vaping. The Australian position is too extreme, and frankly, punitive towards people who smoke.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I Chair End Smoking New Zealand, an organisation that supports vaping to quit smoking.”

Professor Janet Hoek, University of Otago, Wellington, and co-Director of ASPIRE2025, comments:

“The Australian Government has introduced important new measures as it attempts to curb rising youth vaping. Key measures include banning single-use disposable vapes, introducing pharmaceutical style packaging, and limiting nicotine concentrations. These measures will help reduce youth vaping.

“Disposable vapes are inexpensive, brightly coloured, easy to conceal, and targeted at young people. Adults who wish to switch from smoking to vaping need a device they can use over the longer term; disposable vapes do not fill that need. Ending the sale of disposable vapes will reduce the appeal of vaping to young people yet do little to inconvenience people who smoke and want to switch to vaping.

“Like Australia, the NZ Ministry of Health has considered tighter regulation of disposable vaping products and recently consulted over a measure that would require vaping products to have removable batteries, which could effectively end sales of disposable vapes. Disposable vapes cause considerable plastic waste and regulations ending sales of these products would benefit the environment as well as young people.

“The NZ Government is also currently considering limiting the nicotine concentration of vaping products. This decision needs to be evidence-based and consider people who smoke (who need a satisfying alternative to smoking); currently, NZ’s permitted nicotine levels are considerably higher than those allowed in the EU (where nicotine strength is limited to 20mg/ml).

“Introducing pharmacy packaging (plain white packaging with black font text) will remove eye-catching branding and so help reduce the appeal of vaping among young people. The NZ Ministry of Health did not consult on this measure but should introduce it, given eye-catching packaging is more likely to appeal to youth than to older people who smoke.

“Australia is also working to end vape sales in convenience stores, which its current law does not permit. NZ has taken a different approach and allows vaping products to be sold as consumer products, a policy that has meant young people are widely exposed to these products. We need to reduce the widespread availability of vaping products and ensure these can be sold only by staff with expertise in smoking cessation who operate from specialist vape stores. We should also end sales of vaping products by generic retailers, introduce proximity limits so vaping products cannot be sold near schools, and bring in density limits to prevent clusters of vape stores from operating within a small area.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I receive (or have received) funding from the Health Research Council, Cancer Society, and Royal Society Marsden Fund.”

Professor Chris Bullen, School of Population Health, University of Auckland, comments:

“Vaping is viewed and regulated quite differently in New Zealand than in Australia.

“First, vaping is seen as a valuable tool in New Zealand’s tobacco control plan, as a proven way to support people who smoke to quit smoking. We also acknowledge the principle of proportionality – that the benefits of vaping products far outweigh the downsides.

“The proof is in the pudding: as vaping has increased, smoking rates have dropped. Smoking is at an all-time low, with a step-change in smoking for Maori, and we should celebrate that progress. Many smokers are switching from cigarettes to vaping, dramatically reducing their risks of harm, and out-of-pocket costs.

“The most obvious downside of vaping is that increasing numbers of young people who have never smoked cigarettes have taken up vaping. This is the main concern behind the Australian ‘War on vaping’.

“But the data from New Zealand young people, from the most robust survey (the ASH Year Ten Survey), suggest that while experimentation with vapes is common, daily vaping is still relatively rare (just 4 to 5% of 14-15-year-olds in 2022).

“Furthermore, concerns that young people who vape will take up smoking are simply not borne out by the evidence from studies in a range of countries.

“Second, the regulatory environment towards vaping is very different. Despite this difference, youth vaping rates are similar, suggesting that the intensity of social media marketing of vapes and social pressures for young people are likely to be more influential on their behaviour than regulations, calling into question how effective the Australian policy changes will be.

“New Zealand’s regulatory settings are under review and should be adjusted to address areas of concern such as youth-targeted marketing, youth-friendly packaging, poor product quality and illegal sales to minors. Restrictions on flavours and nicotine content are also being looked at, but we need to be careful not to make vaping less accessible and attractive for adults who currently smoke, especially when under the new Smokefree Act very low-nicotine tobacco will be the only tobacco available over the next few years. The focus in New Zealand should be continuing to treat vapes as a tool to help many adults who smoke to quit, and supporting parents and teachers to work with their young people to withstand social and marketing pressures to vape, rather than banning and demonising vaping and vapers in some kind of ‘war’.”

No conflict of interest.

Our colleagues at the AusSMC also gathered expert comment.

Dr Courtney Barnes, Research Fellow at The University of Newcastle, comments:

“Vaping rates amongst Australian youth have nearly doubled since 2019. Although vapes were first introduced as a tool to help adults quit or reduce smoking, these devices are largely used by youth who are not current or ever-users of tobacco. Whilst the long term health impacts of vaping are still emerging, research shows that vaping can result in acute lung injury, poisoning, burns and toxicity through inhalation. Specifically amongst youth, the risk to brain development as a result of consuming nicotine, a common component in these devices, is particularly concerning.

“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. 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.

“Supplementing proposed strategies to stop youth from accessing vapes, such as ceasing the importation of non-prescription vapes, with evidence-based health promotion programmes to discourage youth from taking up vaping should also be prioritised to address this public health issue.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Ron Borland, Deputy Director of the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at The University of Melbourne, comments:

“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. 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.

“The ban on any form of recreational vaping in the short term will lead to a significant proportion of those who are dependent on the nicotine to switch to cigarettes which are still widely available, and there will be a somewhat delayed uptake in smoking among those who are not currently dependent. The policy also appears to be reducing the nicotine levels in prescription vapes. If these levels are dropped low enough, it is likely to greatly reduce their effectiveness as smoking cessation aids and thus lead to considerable relapse back to smoking. Furthermore, a proportion of those who quit using vaping need to maintain their vaping over an extended period after they quit, and the prescription model will make this difficult, again likely leading to a resumption smoking by some.

“There is no reasonable doubt that vaping is a lot less harmful than smoking, and these changes are likely to increase smoking rates and thus increase the burden of ill health and premature mortality in Australia.

“The contrast could not be starker with what is happening in New Zealand, where they are making major efforts to reduce smoking, and taking a more tolerant tax approach to vaping. I predict the New Zealand approach is going to have a vast better impact on public health.

“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.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, comments:

“Like plain packaging, countries around the world will be lining up to copy Australia. The government has again stared down Big Tobacco. All companies wanted to be able to sell these products through cooperative retail outlets with years of form in selling tobacco and illegal vapes to kids.

“Vapes are not being banned but strictly regulated like they always should have been. Anyone who says they are banned probably also believes that every prescribed drug in Australia is by the same argument also banned.

“The vaping industry thinks it is too important to be regulated. For example, asthma puffers, used by 2.6m Australians have never been flavoured because inhaling vapourised chemicals is not safe. The vaping industry doesn’t care about such concerns. It just wants to hasten addiction with beguiling flavours not approved anywhere for inhalation.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Wayne Hall, Emeritus Professor at the National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research at the University of Queensland, comments:

“A change to Australia’s prescription only model of regulating vaping products is long overdue. The policy has failed to restrict youth access or to allow smokers to legally access these products to help them quit.

“Most Australian smokers who use vaping products break the law by obtaining them without a prescription because the AMA and medical colleges discourage doctors from prescribing them. And adolescents have ready access to cheap, colourful and flavoured disposable nicotine vapes.

“A ban on sales of disposable vapes is welcomed as a way to deter youth uptake but much more effort will need to be made to ensure that smokers can easily and legally access approved vaping products.

“We sorely need much better data on the prevalence of vaping in Australia. The latest national data are from 2019. The results of 2022 surveys are not likely to be available before 2024, unless the government expedites their release. In the absence of good data, public policy is being set by alarmist tabloid headlines.

“It would be unfortunate if Australia decides to wage a ‘war on vaping and vapers’ in an effort to make Australia great again in the field of tobacco control.”

No conflict of interest declared.