Vaping advertisers and importers hit with $170,000 in fines by TGA

22 November 2021

Melissa Davey Source: The Guardian

Australian drug regulator cracks down on trade under new laws banning nicotine vaping without doctor’s prescription

Australia’s drugs regulator has fined four individuals and companies more than $170,000 for unlawfully advertising or importing vaping products, with one company hit with more than $100,000 in infringement notices.

In October, laws came into effect that prevent nicotine-containing vaping products from being obtained without a prescription. Doctors are only supposed to prescribe them as a last resort when more proven quit treatments fail. The law changes were prompted by concerns about the health impacts of vaping, and data showing children are increasingly using the products.

Since the new laws kicked in, websites have emerged offering to link vapers to a health practitioner authorised to prescribe the products. But the new laws only allow pharmacies and pharmacy-marketing groups to advertise in a very limited way. Non-pharmacy websites which advertise vaping products, or advertise links to online suppliers, are likely to be non-compliant with the nicotine advertising permissions.

The latest company to be fined by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) for breaching the guidelines is Sydney-based company Mason Online. Its largest shareholder is Bunleng Chhun, who is registered as the owner of what claims to be the largest vaping shop in Australia. The website is registered to a New Zealand email address.

In a statement, the TGA alleged Mason Online is responsible for a number of vaping websites, one of which promoted the use and supply of nicotine vaping products in a way non-compliant way. Under the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, vaping products that contain nicotine are prescription-only medicines and cannot be advertised to the public.

The TGA issued eight infringement notices totalling $106,560 to Mason Online after the company allegedly did not respond to multiple warnings about their advertising.

“Where the TGA requests a person to review their website and remove all non-compliant advertising, it is not enough for the website to be redirected to an overseas domain or for references to a locally based bricks and mortar store to be removed from the website,” a statement from the regulator said.

“The TGA reminds advertisers of the recent warning not to engage in deceptive conduct.”

Earlier in November, the TGA issued three infringement notices, totalling $7,992, to a Melbourne-based individual for alleged importation breaches involving nicotine vaping products. There are currently no TGA-approved nicotine vaping products registered in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods. Medicines that are not in the register are known as unapproved medicines.

In the past month the TGA also issued three infringement notices totalling $39,960 to Sydney-based company RV Global Ecommerce for alleged unlawful advertising of nicotine vaping products, and eleven infringement notices totalling $18,648 to a Melbourne-based individual responsible for the Vapespot website for the same offence.

The chief executive of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health [Acosh], Maurice Swanson, said he was pleased to see the TGA acting swiftly following the introduction of the laws.

“We welcome the strong monitoring of illegal advertising which doesn’t meet the guidance provided by the TGA,” he said. “The TGA’s advertising guidelines have been well-known and well-promoted, so companies can’t claim not to have known about it.”

Swanson said Acosh is now part of a group monitoring access to vaping products particularly by children as part of research to uncover whether and how nicotine vaping products are being obtained unlawfully.

“As part of that we’re meeting with the regional commanders of border force to build a bridge to those good people who are trying to stop the stuff coming in,” he said. “If they open up a parcel coming in and they can’t find a valid, genuine prescription accompanying the product, then they alert the TGA. But they can’t get to every parcel.”

Swanson said he hoped the nicotine vaping product legislation would stop vaping becoming normalised in public for children and teenagers.

“Young people are already being exposed to a plethora of vaping promotions on various social media platforms, like TikTok,” he said. “They’re all about glamorising vaping and showing off the different vaping products. There is good evidence that some of that glamorisation and promotion is sponsored by the tobacco industry who pay the influencers to do them. We are now in the process of monitoring dodgy websites offering these products.”