New Vaping Regime Doesn't Make a Lot of Sense

You would have been living under a rock for the past few decades not to understand that smoking tobacco is harmful to your health.

Australians have been flooded with information about it and combined with other measures like high taxes, plain packaging and increasing restrictions on when and where people can indulge the habit, this has seen a steady decline in smoking rates.

The National Drug Strategy Household Survey estimated that in 2019, 11.6% of Australian adults smoked daily. This is a decline from 12.8% in 2016, and a decline from 25% in 1991. It’s important to note that despite this decline, illnesses related to smoking tobacco are still the number one cause of deaths in Australia.

Lots of people still smoke, but more are quitting and there are now whole industries developing and delivering therapeutic aids to help people with their nicotine addictions.

One of the more recent developments is vaping. While there have been some instances of harm from vaping (much of it associated with vaping cannabis rather than nicotine), some studies have shown that in terms of short-term health impacts it’s less injurious than smoking tobacco. The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Physicians has said that use of e-cigarettes is unlikely to exceed five per cent of the long-term health risks associated with smoking tobacco. It’s considered much safer and is often prescribed as a therapeutic aid to help people quit smoking tobacco.

Vaping is growing in popularity. Sales of e-cigarettes and vape in Australia have risen from $91.2 million in 2014 to $170.2 million in 2019.

Vape contains nicotine and is regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) essentially as a controlled substance. This means you can’t go to the servo or the shops and buy it like you can a pack of smokes. You have to get a prescription from a GP and order your preferred vape from overseas under the TGA’s Personal Importation Scheme for medicines and therapeutic goods not approved in Australia. You can buy vaping equipment from retailers in Australia, but not the vape itself.

This is set to change from 1 October this year, when the TGA will implement a new regime for vape and e-cigarettes. You will still need a prescription from your GP, but you will be able to buy the product in Australia – not from the servo or the shops, but from a pharmacy.

We will have an incongruous state of affairs with nicotine products from that date with a much less harmful product only available from pharmacies with a prescription, and a much more harmful product still available at the servo, the supermarket and the corner shop without any qualification required other than being 18 or older. Incidentally, taxes on tobacco deliver more than $17 billion in revenue to the Australian Government annually.

This incongruity will come about due to the fact that many years ago, according to the TGA’s Adjunct Professor John Skerritt at Senate Estimates in June, tobacco was carved out of the TGA’s remit.

The TGA also needs to clarify how this new regime will affect the law in various states such as Queensland, which currently bans minors from using vape just as it bans them from smoking. States and territories may have to amend legislation to ensure the new regime is complied with – the TGA is still working this out.

There may well be a case to revisit this new regime for vape and e-cigarettes and consider allowing small retail businesses like servos, corner shops and tobacconists to sell approved vape products. Pharmacies already have a monopoly on prescription medicines.

Small businesses in Australia have borne the brunt of border closures and lockdowns, shutting many of them down, and it makes sense to allow this sector an opportunity to tap into this growing market and potentially contribute to a further reduction in smoking rates under a regulatory regime similar to that in place for tobacco sold by retailers.

If the government is serious about reducing tobacco-related harm and deaths, it should consider making vape more easily available to smokers seeking to quit or at least reduce the harm their nicotine addiction may cause to themselves and others. This would be preferable to the current policy of making tobacco so expensive that some nicotine addicts – many from low-income families – have foregone buying food and medicine or paying their bills in order to afford another pack of smokes.

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