Australia’s government is intensifying its tight restrictions on nicotine vapes, announcing a ban on the sale of all nonprescription vaping devices, e-liquids, cartridges and related products. While vapes were technically already prescription-only products in the country, they’re still available in some stores. The initiative is intended to crack down on the country’s supply in light of what officials have called a youth vaping “epidemic.”
Critics say that limiting access to vapes will incentivize use of cigarettes, which will see a slight tax increase but remain on store shelves. Smoking currently kills more than 20,000 Australians per year.
“Australia needs to reclaim its position as a world leader on tobacco control,” said Health Minister Mark Butler in a press release. In a later speech, he contended that “Just like they did with smoking, Big Tobacco has taken another addictive product, wrapped it in shiny packaging and added flavors to create a new generation of nicotine addicts.”
If the harms of cigarettes had originally been known, “I would hope that governments would have snuffed it out immediately—which is what I want to do to vapes.”
Asked by an ABC Radio Adelaide reporter why cigarettes will remain available while nonprescription vapes are banned, he replied: “The difference, I think … is that cigarettes have been around for so long.” If the harms of cigarettes had originally been known, he said, “I would hope that governments would have stopped it, would have snuffed it out immediately—which is what I want to do to vapes.”
Under the new policies, announced May 2 as part of Australia’s 2023–24 federal budget, both import and sale of all nonprescription vape products will be outlawed nationwide. As part of a AU$737 million spending package, the government says it will work with states and territories to close retail vape shops and “stamp out the growing black market in illegal vaping.”
Products available through prescription for people trying to quit smoking will meanwhile be further limited, even as officials pledge to make getting a prescription easier. Manufacturers face new restrictions on flavors, colors and other ingredients; lower volumes and concentrations of nicotine; and mandatory plain, pharmaceutical-like packaging. Single-use, disposable vapes will also be banned outright.
Specifics of the new laws, as well as details on penalties and enforcement, are still being hammered out between the federal government and states and territories, according to media reports. Nor is it clear precisely when the changes will take effect, though Butler has called the issue urgent.
Tobacco harm reduction advocates say Australia’s new policies will send people flocking to the illicit vapes market, where product standards are lower or nonexistent, or encourage them to reach for cigarettes, which will be far easier to obtain legally.
“Under the new vape ban, most will continue to purchase vapes from the black market and some will simply return to deadly smoking,” Dr. Colin Mendelsohn, a physician and smoking cessation specialist in Australia, told Filter in an email.
“Vapers have rejected the prescription model,” he added, referencing surveys showing that only about 9 percent of Australians who vape have a prescription and only 11 percent would be willing to get one if it were required.
Mendelsohn thinks the government’s promise to make it easier to get a prescription, by no longer requiring doctors who prescribe nicotine to register with the government, will make little difference. “Australian doctors are skeptical about vaping due to the constant negative messaging from the mainstream media, health authorities and medical associations,” he said. “They are also concerned about the medico-legal risk of prescribing a product that has not been approved” by the Therapeutic Goods Association, the federal regulatory body for pharmaceuticals.
“A prescription model alone risks missing significant swathes of the population who smoke but who might not seek medical help. It puts barriers in the way.”
Other advocates say product restrictions on prescription vapes—for example flavors, which many adults find helpful in switching from cigarettes—may also dissuade people.
David MacKintosh, program lead at the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction project, told Filter that a prescription model can bring some benefits, including increased trust in vaping as a valid form of harm reduction. “But a prescription model alone risks missing significant swathes of the population who smoke but who might not seek medical help to quit,” he said. “It puts barriers in the way.”
“For tobacco harm reduction to have the biggest possible impact, safer nicotine products must be appropriate, accessible and affordable,” MacKintosh added. “Any move that makes these products harder for adult smokers to access is a bad one.”
For their part, government officials say the supply-side approach is necessary to stem the illegal flow of vapes to youth. Butler claims young people who vape “are three times as likely to take up smoking.”
MacKintosh and others, however, questioned that assertion, citing a 2022 study led by researchers at University College London that found no association between youth vaping and substantial changes in smoking uptake. It’s notable, too, that while youth vaping has risen in Australia, youth smoking has declined.
Mendelsohn said that rather than try to prohibit vapes, Australian officials should refocus their efforts on regulation. He believes vape products should be classified as consumer goods, not medicines, and sold from licensed retailers that face “harsh penalties and loss of license” for sales to minors or failures to check IDs.
Officials respond that existing enforcement measures haven’t managed to stop youth from getting their hands on vape products, despite sales to minors already being illegal.
Both sides acknowledge the substantial growth of Australia’s illicit vaping market in recent years. But what caused it?
“Their response is [to] press the government to ‘ban harder.’ They have learnt nothing and understand nothing about how this all works in practice.”
“Australia’s zealous vaping control regime has already created a massive chaotic black market that will serve teenagers with anything illicit,” Clive Bates, a UK-based tobacco harm reduction advocate and the former director of the Action on Smoking and Health charity, told Filter. “The response of the architects of this mess is [to] press the government to ‘ban harder.’ They have learnt nothing and understand nothing about how this all works in practice.”
The new policies, he predicted, will only exacerbate the problem.
Australia’s new plan will also hike tobacco taxes, already some of the world’s highest, by an additional 5 percent annually over three years. The government’s pledge to “reduce the affordability of tobacco” is criticized by some as disproportionately burdening low-income and other vulnerable groups who smoke at high rates.
But the notion of vapes being made ever harder to reach as cigarettes remain freely available strikes many tobacco harm reductionists as an outrageous inconsistency.
“It makes it easier to smoke than to use a safer alternative,” said Skip Murray, an advocate based in the United States who started smoking at 10 but quit in 2015, after her son gave her a vape. Banning nonprescription vapes gives “a commercial advantage to the lethal alternative.”
“Not enough doctors are willing to prescribe vapor products,” Murray told Filter. “Not enough pharmacies are willing to sell them. And not enough people have access to health care.” Moreover, current guidelines encourage Australian doctors to write nicotine vaping prescriptions that last only three months.
“The primary goal in Australia (and all countries) should be to reduce the morbidity and mortality caused by smoking cigarettes.”
Asked about youth vaping, Murray replied, “This will be an unpopular opinion with those who believe 100 percent abstinence from nicotine is possible for all young people, but I would prefer that kids don’t smoke. And if the tradeoff is that they use a safer alternative to smoking, I won’t be happy about it, but I will be ok with it.”
Murray’s son has heart disease from past smoking. “We have almost lost him twice to heart attacks, at ages 29 and 35,” she said. I would give anything if vaping would have been around when he started smoking and [he] had vaped instead.”
“The primary goal in Australia (and all countries) should be to reduce the morbidity and mortality caused by smoking cigarettes,” Murray continued. “If we really care about people and public health, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that globally, smoking kills millions of people every year.”
Countries with links to Australia have taken a very different approach to vaping. New Zealand and the United Kingdom have embraced vapes as tools for smoking cessation and sought to make them widely available. The UK recently announced a plan to give away a million vape kits to people who smoke. There are also plans for its National Health Service to begin prescribing vapes—but in addition to retail sales, not instead.
Photograph by Random Retail via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0
Knowledge-Action-Change, which operates the Global State of Tobacco Harm Reduction project, has provided scholarships and donations to The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter. Filter’s Editorial Independence Policy applies.