“Vaping was sold to governments and communities around the world as a therapeutic product to help long-term smokers quit,” health minister Mark Butler said Tuesday. “It was not sold as a recreational product — especially not one for our kids.”
Australia already bans the sale of vaping products to children, and adults need a prescription to access nicotine-based vaping products. But the rules are rarely enforced, with some vapemakers labeling their products as “nicotine-free” even when they are not. Research suggests that Australian children can buy nicotine-based vape products relatively easily from convenience stores and gas stations without producing proof of age.
The Australian Association of Convenience Stores didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The industry association, whose members include several major tobacco companies, has argued that “prohibition doesn’t work, regulation does.” It has also accused Butler of blaming its members for “his failing” to clamp down on the black market for vaping products.
Rochelle, a 29-year-old woman who started vaping two or three years ago, bought an e-cigarette from a tobacconist and gift shop near downtown Melbourne on Tuesday. She spoke on the condition that her full name not be used because she did not have a prescription to legally purchase a nicotine-based vape.
She said she had switched from smoking cigarettes in the hope that vapes would help her quit nicotine. “But I’m way more addicted now,” she said. “If I’m really stressed then I do it a lot, or otherwise, just throughout the day.”
A Post reporter later saw a boy enter the store and leave with a vape that he had just bought. The boy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not legally permitted to purchase nicotine products, said he was 17. The person behind the shop counter denied that the store’s vapes contained nicotine and said the boy had lied about his age.
Youth vaping is also a serious public health problem in the United States. A recent study by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found more than 2.5 million adolescents were e-cigarette users in 2022, with most opting for flavored, disposable products.
Kids are flocking to flavored, disposable e-cigarettes, study finds
Anti-vaping advocates have called for regulators to ban flavored e-cigarettes and step up enforcement against illegal products, and criticized the FDA for being too lax against companies that flout the rules. The agency ordered one popular brand, Juul, to take its products off the market last year, citing safety concerns. That order was frozen after Juul challenged the FDA in court.
Under the proposed Australian changes, disposable e-cigarettes and nonprescription vape imports will be banned. At the same time, the government will make it easier for people to get a prescription for therapeutic use, to help traditional cigarette smokers quit. Regulators will also introduce quality standards for vapes, restricting flavors, colors, and other ingredients. Products will be sold only in medicine-like packaging.
At the Melbourne store on Tuesday, single-use vapes were available behind the counter in colorful plastic packaging. A laminated menu sat on the counter with a list of flavors, sizes and prices for customers to choose from.
“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,” Butler, the health minister, said in his speech.
“This is a product targeted at our kids, sold alongside [candy] and chocolate bars,” he said, adding that vapemakers had exploited the “biggest loophole in Australian history.”
While many health experts welcomed the move to clamp down on youth vaping, some warned of potential unintended consequences if the regulations drive people toward traditional cigarettes, or make it harder for smokers to access therapeutic products. Australia has successfully reduced youth smoking over the last decade, with just 7 percent of its youth smoking daily in 2022, down from 16.5 percent a decade ago.
“The government’s approach is an extension of the war on drugs to nicotine, but unlike the war on drugs, they are leaving the most harmful form, smoking, readily available,” said Ron Borland, an expert in health behavior at the University of Melbourne. “The war on drugs failed. It is likely that this policy will fail also.”