COLIN MENDELSOHN was the founding chair of the charity Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association. In this week’s Speaker’s Corner he argues that a blanket ban on nicotine in vapes is creating a black market that’s out of control. ATHRA is a big advocate of using vapes to help people quit smoking, and while it received funding from two vaping companies while getting set up, Dr Mendelsohn says there’s no on-going involvement of the industry and all his involvement and advocacy has been “honorary and self-funded and was forthe purpose of improving public health”.
WE have been inundated recently by reports about the rise of vaping among young people. Alarming stories about schools installing vape detectors in toilet blocks and brightly-coloured disposable vapes being sold to children appear in our papers nearly every day.
There is a reason for this. The vaping black-market is clearly out of control. Millions of illegal devices are being imported freely into Australia each month and sold freely to all comers for an indecent profit.
This problem was created by the government’s own regulations. Now a kneejerk reaction will only make things worse.
Australia is the only country in the world which requires adult smokers to get a doctor’s prescription before purchasing liquid nicotine to help them quit. However, very few doctors are willing to prescribe liquid nicotine, and even fewer pharmacies are willing to sell them.
As a result, many adult smokers have been forced onto the black-market to access a less harmful alternative to deadly cigarettes. The black-market has exploded, selling highly profitable, dodgy products, without any consumer protections.
This includes the widespread and apparently unrestricted sale to young people.
Reporting of youth vaping has reached a fever pitch and misinformation is common. The ‘gateway’ theory, that vaping leads non-smokers to smoking is often raised, but has been comprehensively disproven in numerous scientific studies. In fact, the evidence suggest that vaping is diverting young people away from deadly smoking and reducing smoking rates faster than before.
Further, there is absolutely no evidence that vaping causes serious lung disease. The outbreak of the lung disease in North American in 2019 — a disease which became known as EVALI — was caused by black-market cannabis vapes which were adulterated with Vitamin E Acetate. No cases have ever been linked to nicotine vaping.
The risk from the hysteria around youth vaping is a kneejerk reaction from governments to restrict adult vaping further. This would be a public health catastrophe. Vaping is a lifesaving tool for adult smokers who can’t quit. It is the most popular and most effective quitting aid globally.
Vaping is not risk-free, but the research shows it is around 95% safer than smoking. Smokers who switch to vaping have dramatically reduced exposure to toxins, substantial health improvements, feel and smell much better and have more money in their pockets.
The reality is most smokers try many times and fail to quit using other first-line treatments. Nicotine vaping is an approved solution for these smokers and should be at least as readily available for them as cigarettes.
This isn’t a novel idea. In every other western democracy, vaping products are available as consumer goods for smoking cessation, including the UK and New Zealand. In fact, since its legalisation in 2020, New Zealand has enjoyed record declines in smoking rates, whilst effectively restricting access by young people.
Unfortunately, the Australian government isn’t listening to the science or looking at the public health success in New Zealand. Instead, they are proposing an outright ban on vaping. This will be disastrous for public health.
Prohibition simply doesn’t work and never has. It just sends the problem underground where it is managed by criminal gangs. The way to deal with this market is to regulate it properly, like any other adult product.
That way, these products can be sold with proper age verification in licensed outlets, taxed and chemical additives can be limited to those which are safe.
The state government is also now targeting legitimate vape stores, who have been operating under assurances from the health department that their business is legal. This reaction to the issue of youth vaping is another misguided and ineffective response, which will only force more people onto the black market and may set a dangerous precedent for other states to do the same.
However, the government could change the regulations at any time to make it easier for adult smokers to access vaping products. The black-market will simply no longer be profitable, and will dissolve and sales to kids will dry up.
Without urgent change, instances of use and misuse by young people will only grow, and 21,000 Australian smokers will continue to die every year without accessible alternatives which could help them live longer and healthier lives.