Vape reform: the good, the bad and the paperwork

5 minute read

Wake up and smell the tutti frutti clouds.

News of a fresh crackdown on vaping has been met with celebration and derision from different corners of the medical field, while others wonder what exactly is changing. 

Addressing the National Press Club on Tuesday, Health Minister Mark Butler announced a new suite of reforms focussed on stamping out illegal nicotine vapes. 

These are already illegal. What’s actually changing?

The big change that will affect all GPs is that the government is ditching the authorised prescriber program for nicotine vapes, largely because very few doctors had signed up to the program. 

After the program is dismantled, all GPs will be allowed to write a prescription for a nicotine vape as a smoking cessation aid. 

Importing nicotine-containing vapes without a doctor’s prescription is already illegal, but there’s a thriving black market in small retailers like convenience stores and tobacconists. 

The key issue, according to the Health Minister, is that the ban has not been enforced properly.

What Mr Butler proposes are stronger controls at international borders and more resourcing for state and territory governments to inspect small retailers. 

Legally imported vapes will now have to comply with yet-to-be-formulated TGA standards on plain packaging and flavouring. 

To discourage smoking, the taxes on tobacco products will be increased by 5% per year for three years.

The reforms are consistent with the National Tobacco Strategy 2023-2030, which was also released this week. Its goals include reducing daily smoking prevalence to 10% by 2025 and 5% by 2030.

Which groups are happy about this?

The usual suspects – AMA, RACGP and Public Health Association of Australia – have warmly welcomed the announcement. 

AMA president Professor Steve Robson said the reforms were wise, given the growing evidence base that vaping is harmful.  

“The pharmaceutical packaging, ban on flavours and colours and reduced nicotine concentration for vaping products are bold measures and essential to this reform, placing Australia in a world-leading position when it comes to keeping vapes out of community,” Professor Robson said.

“Enforcing the new rules and cracking down on the black market will be key to their effectiveness.” 

RACGP president Dr Nicole Higgins said the government had “heeded the RACGP’s calls” in announcing the measures.

She particularly welcomed the promise of an advertising campaign aimed at educating young people on the dangers of nicotine. 

“We stand ready to work with government on measures to boost the number of GPs who can prescribe nicotine vaping products and help people quit,” she said.

“My message to all Australians is that if you want to quit nicotine, help is available.”

Prominent anti-tobacco campaigner Professor Simon Chapman predicted that other countries will be “lining up” to follow Australia’s lead. 

“Vapes are not being banned but strictly regulated like they always should have been,” he said. 

“Anyone who says they are banned probably also believes that every prescribed drug in Australia is by the same argument also banned.”

PHAA CEO Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin said youth vaping was a “worldwide scourge”.

The Australian Dental Association joined the chorus of approval, with president Dr Stephen Liew saying vaping was setting the next generation up “for a raft of oral health issues, some of which are shown to be more detrimental to mouth health than years of smoking”.

These include oral lesions, dental decay, gum disease and an increased level of carcinogens in saliva.

According to the American Dental Association vaping spokesman Professor Purnima Kumar, vaping causes rapid changes to the mouth, creating more damage than smoking over the same amount of time.

Who isn’t happy with a vape crackdown? 

The arguments against tighter regulation on vaping products mostly focus on fears that it will drive an increase in smoking or drive the retail vaping market further underground. 

University of Melbourne behavioural health researcher Professor Ron Borland said that cracking down on vapes would likely do more harm than good. 

“The ban on any form of recreational vaping in the short term will lead to a significant proportion of those who are dependent on the nicotine to switch to cigarettes which are still widely available, and there will be a somewhat delayed uptake in smoking among those who are not currently dependent,” he said. 

“The policy also appears to be reducing the nicotine levels in prescription vapes. If these levels are dropped low enough, it is likely to greatly reduce their effectiveness as smoking cessation aids and thus lead to considerable relapse back to smoking.”

Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association founding chairman Dr Colin Mendelsohn – who stepped down from the organisation’s board two years ago – took to Twitter to decry the proposed crackdown. 

ATHRA, which has been vocally pro-vaping in the past, has not yet released a statement on Mr Butler’s raft of changes.

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