ActivePaper Archive Fears world-first vape ban will boost black market - The Age, 7/4/2023

Fears world-first vape ban will boost black market


Australia’s world-first blanket ban on vaping without a prescription will make the problem worse, according to experts from the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs.

The experts debated how to warn the health minister about their misgivings in emails published under freedom-of-information laws.

Private correspondence between members of the government advisory body, which provides confidential advice to the health minister, shows some were alarmed when they learnt the Therapeutic Goods Administration was considering a harsher crackdown on vaping.

Health Minister Mark Butler announced in May that he would double down on Australia’s prescription-only model and rid the nation of disposable vapes.

The move makes Australia an outlier among similar jurisdictions such as New Zealand, Europe and North America, where vapes can typically be bought like cigarettes.

Members of the council also worried that some media outlets were inflaming a moral panic about vaping, particularly where children were involved, and believed that state and federal health ministers were receiving poor advice.

They raised the issue with a Health Department liaison days after Butler asked the TGA to lead a public consultation to crack down on underage vaping and a rampant black market – an approach urged by several prominent health and medical groups.

Rebecca Lang, chief executive of the Queensland Network of Alcohol and Other Drug Agencies, first floated the idea of ‘‘[writing] to the minister to flag our interest in helping on this one’’ on December 2.

‘‘I think we need to provide advice to the effect that further restrictions will likely only make the problem worse and we’ll end up criminalising more people,’’ she wrote to other members of the advisory council.

Lang said the prescription policy had paved the way for an unregulated market, ‘‘with the entirely predictable result that the nicotine on the unregulated market is now more available and potent than that in the regulated one and is being sold to people who should not have access’’.

Another member, Dr Nicole Lee from the National Drug Research Institute, agreed the council should advise Butler.

‘‘There is a lot of misinformation and the federal and state ministers and decision makers are taking much of it on without good advice or consideration of the evidence,’’ she wrote back.

Federal health reporter

At the request of several members, vaping was added to a council meeting agenda in March 2023, when then-TGA head and Health Department deputy secretary Professor John Skerritt presented to the group.

The department representative told the experts to give feedback to the TGA at that meeting so it could be ‘‘formally provided to the minister as part of the post-meeting summary of advice’’, according to the correspondence.

However, the documents do not make clear whether the council made a formal representation to Butler. Members of the council are bound by confidentiality agreements and declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for Butler said the government’s stronger vaping controls ‘‘were developed in consultation with a wide range of public health experts and organisations in Australia ... These reforms also accord with the latest advice on smoking cessation from the RACGP [Royal Australian College of General Practitioners], which states that vapes are not first-line treatment options for smoking cessation.’’

In further published email discussions, Lang lamented that ‘‘there is an absence of consideration of harm or demand reduction as strategies in the options for reform’’. She said that was a ‘‘big problem’’ given that vaping had potential for reducing harm when used to quit smoking.

Some studies have shown vapes can help smokers quit, but others have challenged that and shown teens who vape are more likely to take up cigarettes. The latest figures referred to by Butler found one in six Australian teenagers had vaped.

Dr Nicole Lee raised concerns that ‘‘too severe’’ regulation could make cigarettes more attractive, when chemicals in tobacco and cigarettes were more harmful.

‘‘I think we should make the point somewhere that we support [the] regulation of nicotine but historically the pseudo-regulation of just banning or severely restricting any substance has significant unintended consequences that need to be considered and monitored,’’ she wrote.

She also wrote that border control efforts for other illicit drugs had been ‘‘hugely costly’’, with little impact on the black market.

While the funding for enforcing the vape ban is yet to be allocated, Butler has committed to stamping out vapes at the border.