Vaping Retailers ‘Addicting’ a New Generation to Nicotine: Professor

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‘The only thing young people should be breathing into their lungs is clean air.’

A loophole in Australia’s vaping laws has allowed an influx of illegal vapes into Australia, which has led to widespread availability among young people.

Ease of access and a surge in vape sales, particularly from shops near schools, take-away food outlets, or petrol stations, have prompted leading health experts to call out retailers for “addicting a new generation to nicotine.”

According to Becky Freeman, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney and expert advisor to the Cancer Council tobacco issues committee, “irresponsible retailers” have taken advantage of the Australian federal government’s “prescription-only access” model that makes it illegal for retailers to sell vaping products containing nicotine.

Under the prescription-only model implemented in October 2021, a person can only purchase nicotine vapes through a prescription from a doctor, or vaping liquids from a pharmacy.

Non-nicotine vapes are currently exempt from this model.

“This means retailers can readily incorporate vape retailing within their existing business model, be it a tobacconist, convenience store, chicken shop, or petrol station, and claim to only be selling non-nicotine vapes to adult customers,” Ms. Freeman, and public health experts’ Anita Dessaix and Tanya Buchanan opined, in an editorial published in the Australian and New Zealand journal of public health on Jan. 23.

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“The sale of vapes from local shops, positioned near schools, and with their enticing displays of candy and sweets lining the entrance, attracts a new young customer base.

“In reality, these irresponsible retailers are knowingly selling nicotine-containing vapes to young people. This is evidenced by the high volume of illegal product seizures reported by nearly all Australian governments.”

Additionally, the health department states that vapes and e-cigarettes may contain nicotine even if it is labelled as “nicotine free.”

Ms. Freeman further argued that the prescription-only model has never been fully implemented in Australia as it does not capture the non-nicotine vaping portion of the population, and enforcing the policy poses challenges for the government.

Meanwhile, North America is seeing similar trends where vaping has taken off among younger cohorts, according to Grand View Research.

Government’s Ban on Vapes

On Jan. 1, the Australian federal government implemented a ban on the importation of disposable single-use vapes.

Additionally, doctors and nurses will be able to prescribe vapes to patients where clinically appropriate, i.e., for people who genuinely want to quit smoking cigarettes, through a new “Special Access Scheme” pathway.

Then, from March 1, further measures will be implemented to include a ban on the personal importation of vapes, banning the importation of non-therapeutic vapes, requiring therapeutic vape importers and manufacturers to notify the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of their product’s compliance with relevant standards, and requiring importers to obtain to licence and permit from the Australian Government’s Office of Drug Control before products are imported.

Product standards for therapeutic vapes will also be tightened, including limiting flavours, reducing nicotine concentrations, and applying plain packaging.

“We’re taking tough action because this is a major public health issue,” federal Health Minister Mark Butler said.

“Before our government changed the loopholes in existing laws, millions and millions of disposable vapes were able to flood into Australia—vapes that are deliberately marketed at our children.”

Mr. Butler said that single-use vapes are made to entice young kids and are part of “Big Tobacco’s plan to recruit a new generation to nicotine addiction.”

For example, one in six high school students was vaping, with some needing nicotine patches to get through exams, Mr. Butler said

Ms. Freeman has praised the federal government’s vaping reforms.

“The prescription-only model will finally be implemented fully and able to function as originally intended,” she said.

“Together, these reforms will stop the overwhelming flood of illegal vaping products coming into Australia and see the end of local shops selling vapes.”

However, according to Samantha Howe from the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, the success of the reforms will depend on several factors, such as: controlling the illicit vape market; time and financial barriers to adults seeking nicotine-vaping products from medical consultations; and the willingness of doctors to prescribe them as cessation aids.

While the federal government has said the reforms will not criminalise vapers “in any way,” Ms. Freeman has said that this policy strikes a balance between protecting young people from a “notoriously predatory industry” while providing controlled access to vaping.

“The proposed reforms will be welcomed by schools, parents, and teens struggling with the vaping epidemic,” she said.

Vaping Ban Could Fuel Black Market

While the federal government pushes ahead with its vaping reforms, there are concerns a ban will fuel the black market.

For instance, Libertarian MLC David Limbrick has said the government is unrealistic if they think the ban will work.

Additionally, retired doctor and founding chairman of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association Dr. Colin Mendelsohn, told 3AW radio, that Australia has “just got the regulations wrong.”

Ironically, British American Tobacco’s “Responsible Vaping Australia (RVA)” wants to end the black market through government regulation, while advocating for the “responsible regulation” of nicotine vaping products.

“Given how easily young people can access nicotine-vapes, Australia currently has a ‘free-for-all market’ rather than a ‘black market,’” Ms. Freeman said, adding that the RVA campaign is a thinly veiled “astro-turf lobbying effort” to weaken vaping laws.

She said that once the federal government’s vaping reforms are in place, a similar policy should be adopted for tobacco products.

“Whether vapes or tobacco, the only thing young people should be breathing into their lungs is clean air.”

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