Like other drug harm-reduction innovations including methadone treatment, needle syringe programs and drug consumption rooms, vaping has been vigorously opposed from the outset. But support for vaping has grown steadily among federal Coalition backbenchers in recent years.
In June, the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) announced a ban on the importation of vaping effective from July 1, with a proposed fine for possession of nicotine liquid without a prescription of $220,000! Vigorous protests soon began: within days, 28 government backbenchers signed a letter to Health Minister Greg Hunt and 70,000 vapers signed a petition. Concerned about the potential impact of this division in government ranks on a forthcoming by-election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison ordered Hunt to retreat. Hunt announced that the ban would be postponed to January 1, 2021.
A Senate select committee on tobacco harm reduction chaired by NSW Liberal party Senator Hollie Hughes was established and received many submissions including more than 8000 short submissions from vapers. But on December 8, at the final meeting of the government party room for 2020, vaping was the main item for discussion. Ten speakers supported legalising vaping (and opposed the prescription-only model supported by Mr Hunt and the TGA) while only one speaker supported Mr Hunt’s attempt to ban vaping.
Significantly, Mr Hunt did not speak but the Prime Minister closed the discussion noting that both he and Mr Hunt were listening and were sensitive to MPs’ and senators’ views. The committee reported its findings on December 18, with two government senators supporting and five opposed to vaping.
On December 21, the TGA announced that from October 1, 2021, vapers would require a doctor’s prescription to obtain vaping devices and certain other nicotine products. There was no mention of a ban on importation or the previous draconian fine. This means that Mr Hunt and the government appear to accept that the importation ban is not feasible but do not yet appear to accept that this would leave vaping dangerously unregulated in Australia.
We need regulation to ensure safety of vaping devices and ingredients and ensure that vaping is taxed proportionately as a much safer consumer item. But where the government is now, vaping is essentially unregulated, allowing people to import their nicotine liquid from anywhere while vapers are forced to find a doctor to write their prescription, just so they can make the less harmful decision to get off cigarettes.
We are the only Western country in the world that requires a prescription for a much less harmful alternative and allows its citizens to buy the deadly product on every corner. We are out of step with our contemporaries, including the UK, US and NZ.
Vaping and other forms of tobacco harm reduction are slowly destroying major cigarette companies. The share price of Philip Morris International, the largest traded tobacco company in the world, fell from its peak of $US122.90 in June 2017 to a current 2020 average of $US77.50. Investors are bailing out of big tobacco as they can see the writing on the wall. Vaping is increasingly capturing the market for nicotine.
Vaping will eventually be legalised in Australia. In recent years, countless stories have emerged of people smoking packs of cigarettes a day for decades stopping overnight by switching to vaping. It is the right public health decision to make. It is the right moral and business decision to make. And vapers and vaping advocates will continue to make the case until Australians are allowed to legally and easily make the right decision for their health and their lives.
Alex Wodak is the director of Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Australia (ATHRA)