As Australia faces a vaping ‘epidemic’, this is the warning from experts

24 February 2023

By Rayane Tamer, SBS News

Australia is working to combat what experts describe as a “vaping epidemic” as more studies reveal the dangerous impacts of e-cigarettes on young teenagers.

But health experts are pleading with Australian regulators not to follow New Zealand’s model which has resulted in record-low smoking rates, but a worrying surge in vaping.

With a booming black market to purchase vapes, colourful packaging and soft regulations that are difficult to enforce, Health Minister Mark Butler said the vaping problem has spiralled “out of control”.
In Australia, it’s only legal to buy a vape with a prescription – a practice young people are easily flouting.

“School principals now – primary school principals, as well as high school – say that vaping is now the number one behavioural issue in their schools, which is just extraordinary,” he told the ABC on Friday.

On Friday Mr Butler met with state, territory, and federal leaders to consider implementing better reforms to crack down on the illegal selling and buying of vapes.

Policing measures and border controls were on the agenda to discuss, he said, to combat what he described as a problem that has run “rampant through the community”.

But as authorities consider ways to better regulate vaping, health experts are pleading not to look to New Zealand for a model worth imitating.

How common is vaping among young Australians?

Health experts are growing increasingly concerned as more studies on vaping are conducted because they are seeing a clear link between vaping, addiction, and a likely path to smoking.

A 2022 study led by Becky Freeman, an associate professor of health at the University of Sydney, called found that teenagers in NSW aged between 14 and 17 are easily getting their hands on nicotine-containing vapes from convenience stores, despite it being illegal to do so.

The survey, capturing 700 participants in 2019, showed that one in five non-smoking tried vaping. In 2021 just under a third of people in NSW aged between 16 and 24 vaped at least once.
A from the Australian National University in 2022 revealed that five per cent of Australians aged between 18 and 24 have taken up vaping as a regular habit.

And a Victorian Cancer Council report earlier this month revealed that 80 per cent of Australians believe e-cigarettes are highly addictive.

The addictive consequences of vaping are alarming, said Janet Hoek, a professor of health at the University of Otago.

“Sometimes the cravings are so intense that young people talk about not being able to concentrate in school or through a school period, they’d have to go into the bathrooms and vape,” she said.

“What seemed like a pleasurable casual experience quickly become something that they have to organise their lives around, and that’s a very unwelcome surprise for many of them.”

What are the current rules around vaping in Australia?

Associate Professor Freeman explained that on paper, Australia has some of the most “effective legislation in the world”.

Australians can only legally obtain a nicotine-containing vape with a prescription. Only those who have tried and failed to quit smoking and have consulted with a doctor should be able to receive a vape from a pharmacy.

“That sounds like we would have really controlled access … unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening,” she said.
Vapes with colourful packaging.
Vapes come in various flavours and are often marketed towards young children. Credit: The New York Times
Convenience stores are only allowed to sell vapes without nicotine, but Professor Freeman said that’s hard to regulate.

“What we have here is a whole bunch of retailers selling nicotine-containing products that are masquerading as non-nicotine products,” Associate Professor Freeman said.

There should also be child-resistant packaging and warning labels on products, but they’re measures that are not being adopted, with colourful and child-friendly flavours being used to attract a younger market.

“[Vapes are] often marketed with pink unicorns on them and bubble gum flavour, these aren’t being marketed to adults these are directly targeted to kids, and I’m determined to stamp that out,” Mr Butler said.

So, what’s on the cards?

In a consultation paper prepared by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in November last year, several possible reform proposals have been raised.

Banning all nicotine vaping products is on the table, as well as implementing import permits for medical practitioners who want to get e-cigarettes through border controls.

Mr Butler said it’s likely that a ban on imports is inevitable to tighten the distribution among teenage vapers.
“At the end of the day the Commonwealth will have to act, including potentially on the borders,” he said.

“I know my state and territory colleagues realise there’s going to have to be some policing resources put into this as well because it is just rampant through the community.”

Associate Professor Freeman is calling for an absolute ban on non-nicotine products being sold in convenience stores and encouraged the government to impose a total import ban.

That way, it can eliminate any possibility of e-cigarettes containing nicotine being sold covertly to children easily.

“What we need to do in Australia is strengthen our laws, remove this ridiculous loophole that we have and prevent young people from so readily accessing these products,” she said.

“We will be going a really long way in preventing this vaping epidemic that we have on our hands.”

Can we take lessons from New Zealand?

New Zealand has taken a much more relaxed approach to vaping, and it’s a model that Australia is being urged not to follow.

In New Zealand, people don’t need a prescription to get their hands on an e-cigarette with nicotine. Instead, people aged 18 and over can buy them at local convenience stores.

Corner shops and petrol stations can offer a limited variety of flavours, and specialty stores are allowed to sell a greater range.
The latest data from New Zealand’s Ministry of Health shows 8.3 per cent of New Zealand adults have taken to vaping – more than the annual smoking rate of eight per cent.

While some health officials have praised New Zealand’s dramatic drop in smokers, attributed to its , the easy switch to e-cigarettes shouldn’t be something to applaud, others say.

“Nobody can look at those figures and say, here’s a successful strategy,” Professor Hoek said.

“It does concern me that there are people in Australia, looking at us and saying, ‘gosh, why don’t we do what they’re doing?’.”

Associate Professor Freeman said Australia should not be looking across the Tasman for guidance on how to protect teenagers from harm.

“What we can learn from the New Zealand experience is that making these products readily available even more readily available is not the solution,” Associate Professor Freeman said.

“This is not a model we want to import. It’s not something that’s preventing youth uptake or assisting in limiting access by young people.”


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