Has Australia’s nicotine e-liquid ban worked?
A year has now passed, and Dr Colin Mendelsohn has released a publication on whether this nicotine e-liquid ban has worked how the Australian government had hoped, and to put it bluntly, it has not worked in the correct way, and if anything, it’s had the opposite effect the government had hoped for.
On October 1st 2021, Australia introduced an enforcement that hadn’t been seen done by any other country, and that was the banning of all nicotine containing e-liquids being sold without a valid prescription from a GP. I’ve spoken about this in a previous article about Regulations around the world which you can read by clicking the link. The Therapeutic Goods Administration were the one who created and enforced this legislation, and The Poisons Standard was amended so all nicotine vaping products became ‘prescription only’ medicines regulated by the TGA. This meant no nicotine-vaping products are included on the Register of Therapeutic Goods which made them ‘unapproved medicines’
This was done in a bid to combat the rising numbers of young adults & adolescents from taking up nicotine vaping products and allowing current smokers to access these products as a quit smoking option and getting correct medical advice from a GP prior to prescription.
Who is Dr Col?
Dr Colin Mendelsohn or “Dr. Col” as he is nicknamed is a huge advocate for Vaping, and tobacco harm reduction and has released numerous articles, videos and even a book on how much safer Vaping is than smoking. Below is a bit about Dr Col in his own words:
“I am an Australian medical practitioner who has worked in the field of smoking cessation, tobacco control and tobacco harm reduction for 40 years. I am involved in clinical practice, teaching and research. I am a member of the Smoking Cessation Guidelines Expert Advisory Group that develops the RACGP Australian national smoking cessation guidelines.
I was the Founding Chairman of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA), a registered health promotion charity dedicated to raising awareness of low-risk nicotine products as a substitute for smokers who can’t quit. I stepped down from the organisation in January 2020.
I am also on the Expert Advisory Group for the Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (CAPHRA).”
If you’ve read any of my previous articles about the safety of Vaping, you would have seen Dr Colin referenced as I’m a huge fan of his work, and know he is a legitimate source for information when it comes to Vaping.
The predictions from ATHRA over the suggested regulations
ATHRA released a publication prior to the regulations taking effect and compiled a list of predictions on what they believed would happen with the announcement of this new regulations, and looking at this list to the state of things in Australia now, I might ask them for the lottery numbers as they weren’t wrong! The predictions were;
- A thriving black market
- Non-compliance by smokers and vapers
- Lack of engagement by doctors and pharmacies
- Damage to the legal vape industry
- Loss of government revenue and greater costs to user
Let’s look at the current situation and see how their predictions match up.
A thriving black market for the sale of Vaping products
As predicted by ATHRA, once these restrictions were imposed, the black market for Vaping products absolutely boomed. Huge numbers of unregulated devices were being imported from China at a cheap cost of around $2-$5 (AUSD) and then sold on the market for anywhere from $25-$40 a unit. With today’s current conversion, that’s equivalent to £14-£25 per disposable vape, three to five times the suggested retail price of disposables over here in the UK.
The problem with these disposables that are being imported is that they are labelled as “Nicotine Free” to bypass the Border Force teams as they haven’t got the ways and means to test every single device to check their legitimacy so they’re entering the market with ease. However, the labels lie, and these have been found to contain anywhere from 40-60mg of nicotine per device, an absurdly high number and bad news for someone who genuinely was hoping to purchase a Nicotine free vape and ending up with an addiction to Nicotine very rapidly.
The safety of these concerns is also a huge concern, due to them being imported from China where there are no restrictions or regulations on products made in the country. Dr Jody Morgan who is a Toxicologist from the University of Sydney believes that these devices not only have high volumes of Nicotine in, but also may contain heavy metals and toxic adducts which is a huge cause for concern. She also states that whilst these are present, vaping one of these devices is considerably safer than smoking.
With the black market profiting so much, it’s coming at the cost of legitimate vaping companies, with many retailers having to close their bricks and mortars store, and even cease trading online due to lack of custom thanks to the restrictions imposed. Very sad situation.
The three most known ‘brands’ of these Disposables are iGet, Gunpod and HQD. A representative for iGet reported in late 2021 that they are selling over one million devices to Australia, and HQD reported they ship up to 250,000 units a month to Australia to several “dealers both big and small”
Another massive cause for concern with this black-market boom, is criminal organisations are getting involved in the importation and sale of these as a quick money-making scheme due to the huge demand for them and the very minimal consequences from getting caught due to the strain the Border Force are under financially.
Negligence on compliance from resellers
One of the top priorities from the TGA announcing these regulations was to protect Young adults and adolescents from Nicotine vaping products and to stop them from forming a nicotine dependency/addiction by using such things.
However, with the black-market sales booming so much, resellers of these disposable vapes have no care for the compliance and regulations on who they sell them to. Convenience stores, tobacconists, petrol stations are selling them to minors with no ID checks, and even Uber drivers are selling them to their passengers as an extra means of income. They are capitalising on the demand for these, and with such a huge mark up on profits, it’s a no brainer for them. The reason they flaunt the rules is because enforcement is negligible and prosecution from the State is very rare, and businesses normally resume selling a couple of weeks after they have been warned.
With social media being used most by 11–18-year-olds worldwide, people are even using this to sell the Disposables to minors with no checks required, and even offering a home delivery service of “discreet unmarked packaging so your parents will never know” absolutely mind blowing.
Doctors are failing to comply
Dr Col goes on to talk about the lack of compliance and forthcoming from GPs in Australia when it comes to giving prescriptions for nicotine based vaping products due to their scepticism on Vaping.
Only a very small minority of vapers in Australia legally have access to purchase nicotine containing vape liquid, with the number at sitting at 3-12% but as Dr Colin says, this number is unverified based on survey results that have varying answers.
The main problem people are having in Australia is finding a GP that is willing to prescribe Nicotine to their patients, with a staggering 200 out of 31,000 GPs being listed by the TGA as authorised nicotine prescribers. That’s less than ONE PERCENT of the entire countries GP’s.
It’s quite well documented in publications in Australia that Vaping is bad for you, and sadly it appears that the Doctors are influenced by this. Doctors are scared to prescribe something in case it isn’t on the TGA approved list as this could lead to ceasing of their licence to practice medicine, and they have had very minimal training on the subject, so it doesn’t come at a surprise that the number is so low, but it’s coming at the cost of people wanting to vape legally.
Pharmacies that do produce and distribute Nicotine e-liquid are very few and far between also, and it’s reported that only 2% of nicotine containing e-liquids were purchased from a Pharmacy.
It frustrates me that the government enforces such things for the “better future of Australia’s people”, but it falls short so drastically at the first hurdle. Cigarettes kill people, everybody knows that, and the fact that these are so freely available to buy at 20,000 different retailers across the country with no regulations or restrictions upsets me, when people who are trying to kick their habit and enrich their lives by starting to vape face the highest of hurdles before they can start this. It’s no wonder the black market is booming…
Have these regulations met the aims, or missed the mark?
In case you hadn’t gathered already by the above content, these regulations have missed the mark, and by quite some way unfortunately.
Aim 1 was to “Prevent adolescents and young people from taking up nicotine vaping products”
Studies have shown that vaping amongst the above groups is at the highest rate it’s ever been, and the Teachers Professional Association of Queensland has even dubbed the situation as “out of control” and it comes as no surprise with the amount of black-market trading going on and disregard on compliance from outlets selling to minors with no real consequence or prosecution.
The efforts made to contain the vaping outbreaks in schools is nothing short of inhumane, with reports stating schools are using state police to patrol, removing toilet cubicle doors, locking toilets during class hours, installing vape detectors and even security cameras to clamp down on it. This is taking things to the extreme a bit, and simpler methods could be adopted to combat this, rather than the sheer invasion of privacy that these “rules” are enforcing.
Aim 2 was to “Allow current smokers to access these products for smoking cessation with appropriate medical advice”
I’m not going to repeat what I’ve said above, but all that shows that current smokers do not have easy access to this, with GPs unwilling or knowing how to write a nicotine prescription, therefore not being able to help.
The black-market sales of vaping products are booming for this reason, and current smokers are having to use illicit methods in their bid to start vaping and being exposed to super strong nicotine-based products that they’re unaware of the true content of.
What could be done to improve?
Dr. Col made some sound suggestions on what could now be implemented in the revision of these legislations. There was originally supposed to be reviews conducted at 6, 12 and 24 months but delays have pushed these back and currently there hasn’t been any reviews done. In a statement released as reply to the question of when to expect a review, the statement reads
“The review into the regulatory reforms pertaining to nicotine vaping products has not yet commenced and at this time we do not have an anticipated timeframe for when the review will begin.”
Dr Colin makes the following recommendations;
- Exempt nicotine liquid in concentrations ≤6% for vaping for tobacco harm reduction from the Poisons Standard at the federal (preferably) or state level
- Allow sales from licensed retail outlets with strict age verification, and severe penalties and loss of licence for under-age sales
- Strict enforcement of minimum age-of-sale laws
- Supervision by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission
Strong recommendations and sensible ones also by Dr Colin, and these were similar to my ideas I had prior to reading what his recommendations would be. There definitely needs to be more consequences for businesses that flaunt the rules with no care.
Border Force agencies in the country are under a lot of strain and pressure with budget cuts, like the Trading standards authorities here in the UK, and they’re struggling to keep up with the workload and therefore things may slip under the radar. More funding could help this problem being solved, which I know is easier said than done.
I’ll be keeping a close watch on how things will unfold in the country of Australia and will be reporting back as and when any updates are released.