The Australian Government is making it much harder for adults to vape recreationally to keep them out of the hands of children who were already getting them illegally.
Depending on who you listen to, vaping is either the single biggest revolution in the history of reducing tobacco related harm, or it’s creating a new generation of nicotine addicts who would have never smoked to begin with.
Most experts around the world agree that it’s not completely safe to vape but also that it’s much safer than smoking.
In 2020 Canada’s Royal College of Physicians concluded that vaping was 95% less harmful than smoking based on a review of a broad range of research and studies.
In 2022 Public Health England concluded that “in the short and medium term, vaping poses a small fraction of the risks of smoking.”
Public Health England also found there was no detectable danger to others from passive vaping.
In comparison, two out of three lifelong smokers will die from their habit and one-in-four cancer deaths are related to smoking.
But vaping among children has become a big concern for parents in Australia and that has prompted a new crackdown on vaping by the Australian Government that will severely restrict vaping by adults in the name of protecting children in the months to come.
Vaping popular with Australians
Vaping has been a huge hit with the LGBTIQA+ community in Australia , where 16 percent of us still smoke and where we’re still 1.5 times as likely to smoke daily compared to heterosexuals.
Vaping also has the attraction of being far cheaper than smoking, it doesn’t make your clothes or fingers smell, and you can get away with doing it in more places compared to smoking.
Around 1.5 million Australians now vape, only slightly less than the number who still smoke, and the vast majority of those do so recreationally through unregulated blackmarket products without medical supervision.
Although vaping as an alternative way to consume nicotine has only been around since 2004 the technology behind it is not new.
The cloudy “vapour” is produced by essentially the same technology as the smoke machines that have been in use in nightclubs since the 1970s.
A metal coil is used to heat vegetable glycerin and propylene glycol to create a “smoke” effect but with nicotine and food-grade flavourings added to the mix.
As the ingredients are atomised rather than burned there is no chemical change to them before entering the lungs and that is where the greatest reduction in harms occurs in comparison to smoking.
The drawbacks with vaping compared to cigarettes is that people can continue to vape on a device all through the day which can lead to uncomfortable symptoms of nicotine overdose, and they can also cause themselves harm by continuing to vape on a device with a coil that is wearing out.
Individual chemicals used to flavour vapes have also been linked to health problems but these have mostly been banned in countries that have regulated recreational vaping.
A thriving blackmarket
Most Australian adults buy disposable vapes containing nicotine from convenience stores and tobacconists where they have been sold openly for years despite already being illegal. These unregulated products come without health warnings and often deliver nicotine at much higher rates than a cigarette can.
Until now a smaller number of Australian adults have been importing vape juice containing nicotine for personal use from countries where vaping is legal and regulated, mostly from New Zealand.
These products come with government health warnings and have published nicotine rates that are much closer to what is delivered by a cigarette. These users typically use rechargeable devices that don’t contribute to e-waste.
Underage vapers in Australia are mostly using the same disposable products as adults.
But they have been overwhelmingly sourcing them from other children or adults in the same way that they would obtain illegal drugs, rather than buying them in retail settings.
In Australia the biggest increase in vaping has been among people aged 18-24 and 25-35, while much fewer people who are over 35 have started vaping.
However 14.5 percent of 14-17 year olds now vape and there has been a huge increase in the number of teenage smokers in Australia over the past five years, to just under 13 percent.
Opponents of vaping say that vaping is to blame for the rise in teenage smokers.
But this may be a uniquely Australian phenomenon.
In December, New Scientist magazine reported that fears that children vaping would lead to more children smoking weren’t born out in other countries, suggesting that “any small gateway effects may be outweighed by the number of people moving from smoking to vaping.”
“If the gateway hypothesis is true, then as youth vaping rises, so should youth smoking. But the opposite has happened: the rise of youth vaping has been accompanied by a decline in youth smoking in the US, UK and New Zealand.”
The standout difference here is that adult recreational vaping is legal in the US, UK and New Zealand and so those products are sold by licensed vendors in those countries.
Australia goes it alone
Australia began enacting the strictest vaping laws in the world from January 1 in the name of protecting children, starting with a ban on the importation of all disposable vapes.
These products were already illegal in Australia but the federal government will work with the states to stamp out their sale in retail settings.
But the government is going even further in trying to stamp out recreational vaping altogether.
Rechargeable devices and vape juice used for non-medical vaping will be banned from being imported into Australia for personal use from March, and the government is seeking to restrict vaping solely to those devices that have the purpose of quitting smoking (and then vaping) under the supervision of a doctor.
These will only be available through pharmacies with a medical prescription and tighter rules around flavours, nicotine concentration levels and packaging will also be enforced.
Only mint, menthol and nicotine flavours will be allowed under plans announced by the federal government this week.
Cigarettes will continue to remain easier to access for adult users than vaping.
In comparison, other countries are going down a different path by encouraging adult smokers to switch to vaping while simultaneously devoting resources to keep them out of the hands of children.
Since legalising and regulating its recreational vaping industry, smoking rates have fallen to record lows in New Zealand.
As part of the UK Government’s “Plan to Create a Smokefree Generation” it is spending the equivalent of $85 million on a national “Swap to Stop” scheme to give a million adult smokers free vaping starter kits.
In practice the government’s new measures will be unlikely to stamp out recreational vaping in Australia just as laws against recreational drugs have not stopped their importation and illicit sale here.
While vaping devices will stop being sold openly by retailers it is likely that dealers of other illicit substances will simply step in to meet demand and organised crime groups already import huge amounts of illegal untaxed cigarettes into Australia so disposable vapes will most likely continue to enter the country via those networks.
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