Gone in a puff of smoke: Importing disposable vapes banned from next year

27 November 2023

By Natassia Chrysanthos, The Sydney Morning Herald

Disposable vapes won’t be allowed into Australia from New Year’s Day under the federal government’s bold plans to stop a new generation becoming addicted to nicotine.

Australia’s ambition to become the first country to limit vaping to people with a prescription will be rolled out in several phases next year, starting with an import ban on single-use products and an expanded access scheme for medical use from the start of 2024.

Health Minister Mark Butler’s crackdown aims to stop a thriving black market that imports millions of flavoured disposable vapes from China and sells them to young Australians on social media or under the counter in convenience stores.

Expanded access to vaping prescriptions will be a vital part of the reforms because legal pathways must become easier to stop people seeking out products on the black market.

All doctors and nurse practitioners will be able to prescribe vapes from the new year, but the success of the scheme will rely on a shift in approach from medical professionals, who have been largely unwilling to prescribe vapes as a smoking cessation tool.

The previous system required GPs to register as authorised vape prescribers and was widely seen as ineffectual because only 5 per cent of doctors took up the option.

Butler will outline on Tuesday how the vape ban will work, after first announcing it in May. Health and police ministers agreed to the changes at a meeting last week.

Further changes that will apply from March include a ban on people importing their own vaping products, and on the import of all non-therapeutic vapes.

Vape importers will also have to obtain a permit from the federal government and notify the Therapeutic Goods Administration that their products comply with new standards.

The new product standards, to be strengthened in 2024, will limit flavours, reduce maximum nicotine concentration and require pharmaceutical packaging, but businesses will be given a transition period to comply.

The government will also introduce legislation next year to prevent the manufacturing, advertisement, supply and commercial possession of non-therapeutic and single-use vapes in Australia.

A national vaping working group will oversee the plan, while $25 million will go to the Australian Border Force and $56.9 million to the Therapeutic Goods Administration over two years to enforce the crackdown.

Butler’s decision to pursue an all-out ban was opposed by industry groups who called on the government to reap tax revenue from commercial vape sales instead, and by harm-reduction experts who warned prohibition rarely works.

Enforcement experts have also warned the ban will be difficult to police given the scale of the black market and the fact that vapes, alongside illicit tobacco, have become a lucrative market for organised crime groups because they offer high profit margins with smaller penalties than narcotics.

But the health minister said all levels of government wanted to take tough action – a stance welcomed by public health groups.

“The government is alive to the implementation obstacles. Like all other illegal drugs, there will no doubt be some vapes that get into the country,” Butler said.

“But they will no longer be easy for schoolchildren, our most vulnerable and impressionable members of society, to get their hands on them.”

Data collected by the Cancer Council in March this year showed 20 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 14 per cent of 14- to 17-year-olds were current vapers.

“Vaping is creating a whole new generation of nicotine dependency in our community. It poses a major threat to Australia’s success in tobacco control, and the Albanese government is not going to stand by and let this happen,” Butler said.

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