Australia’s muddled laws on vaping are emerging from a dank cloud of confusion: According to a Wednesday report in the Guardian, the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has ruled that nicotine will be reclassified as a prescription-only medication in June 2021.
Sales of nicotine e-cigarettes and fluids (whether nicotine juices or salts) are already prohibited throughout all of Australia via state and territorial law, the Guardian wrote, and nicotine is considered a poison that is illegal to possess anywhere but South Australia. The law currently allows Australians to import vaping products from abroad with a prescription, but the doctor’s note requirement was broadly ignored.
The country’s government attempted to crack down this summer and restrict imports to physicians with special permits. Australian news radio show Hack reported the ban on imports was supported by “every major public health body, from the Cancer Council to the Heart Foundation to the Royal Australian College of GPs,” though its implementation was delayed six months after outrage from Australian vapers furious about a sudden cutoff.
The changes sought by the TGA would clear a legal pathway to obtaining vaping products that doesn’t require finding a doctor willing to obtain special permits, but would require buyers to have a legitimate prescription filled via online suppliers or pharmacies. The same rules would apply to heat-not-burn tobacco products — which have despite shaky harm reduction claims, have been approved for sale in the U.S. — as well as chewing tobacco, snuff, and other nicotine products, according to the Guardian.
The TGA wrote on its website that its decision was motivated by rising use among teens. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published a report this year claiming that almost two-thirds of current smokers (and one in five non-smokers) ages 18-24 in the country had tried e-cigarettes; 65 per cent of adolescent non-smokers in Australia were reported to have tried vaping. This claim received significant pushback. According to Hack, the rate has risen, but remains in the low single digits among both adolescents and young adults once the data was adjusted to exclude those who have only tried vaping a handful of times.
“Substances are scheduled according to the risk of harm and the level of access control required to protect consumers,” the TGA wrote. “In the delegate’s view, restricting the availability of nicotine containing e-cigarettes to supply in accordance with a prescription is necessary to reduce the potential uptake of e-cigarettes and smoking in young adults who would otherwise be at low risk of nicotine addiction.”
Research has indicated that vaping is far less harmful than smoking tobacco cigarettes, but that it is far from harmless. Recent studies have indicated vaping may have serious detrimental impacts on everything from lung health to the microbiome of the mouth.
The industry vaping ran into significant problems in the U.S. starting last year, with the federal government followed the lead of several states and banned most flavours of nicotine pods (but not juices or salts) and raised the legal smoking age to 21. Those measures were largely motivated by concerns over teen use, as well as the hundreds of people showing up to hospitals across the U.S. with vaping-associated pulmonary injury (though those were later tied to black market THC products tainted with vitamin E.) Companies like Juul have been hit hard by both the new restrictions and, in Juul’s case, ongoing investigations into its marketing tactics and a Federal Trade Commission antitrust case.
“The evidence that e-cigarettes are effective for population-wide smoking cessation is weak,” Australian Council on Smoking and Health chief executive Maurice Swanson told the Guardian. “[Meanwhile, there’s] growing evidence that e-cigarettes cause harm to the heart, lungs, and the developing brain of adolescents and growing evidence about high levels of e-cigarette use by young people in countries that have allowed them to be more freely available and promoted.”