Why Australia should not ban disposable vapes

Posted on July 24, 2023 By Colin

MINISTER BUTLER HAS ANNOUNCED a plan to ban all (legal and non-legal) disposable vaping products in Australia, because of widespread use by young people. The proposed ban has been widely criticised by leading experts. It will not stop illegal imports and is likely to increase smoking.

Black market disposables have flooded the Australian market. An estimated 90-100 million devices are imported each year by organised crime gangs (OCGs) from China and are freely sold from retail outlets, social media and online to adults and young people.

The most popular illegal brands are IGET, HQD and Gunpod. These products generally have shoddy construction, are mislabelled (to get through Customs) and do not have safety warnings or an ingredient list. None meet Australian TGO 110 standards but they are still likely to be far safer than smoking.

Parts of a black-market disposable vape

Illegal brands are available in a single nicotine strength only, typically 40-45mg/mL free nicotine (as salt). This is far too strong for a young non-smoker and can cause nausea and vomiting and an increased risk of nicotine dependence.

However, high nicotine levels are needed to help some adult smokers, especially heavy, more addicted smokers and particularly in the early stages of switching from smoking.

Many Australian adult smokers have successfully quit smoking using these illegal devices

High quality disposables are legally available through pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription and can currently also be imported from international websites. These have free nicotine levels in the 28-60mg/mL range, eg Allo Ultra 5% is 28.5mg/mL, Relx 5% is 50mg/mL, Juul US is 59mg/mL. Legal brands also have models with lower nicotine concentrations as well. These products meet the Australian TGO 110 standards, and emission tests shows low levels of chemicals, eg here for Relx. These will also be banned under the proposed regulations.

A ban will be ineffective

The black-market disposables used by young people are already banned and a further ban is likely to have little effect on long-term supply and use, according to experts

Unintended consequences of a ban

Increased smoking

According to a recent survey of 70,000 UK adults (not yet peer-reviewed) disposable use is higher in disadvantaged groups. This includes people with severe mental illness, homelessness, learning disabilities, hospital inpatients and older smokers who struggle with more complex devices and who typically find it harder to quit.

If a ban is successful, which is very unlikely, it will remove an effective and popular quitting aid from the market and would disproportionately affect disadvantaged smokers

Many of Australia’s 1.6 million adult vapers rely on vaping to stay smoke-free, and some disposable users will relapse if their preferred product is not available. Most adult vapers are unwilling to jump through the hoops needed to access legal products through a doctor and pharmacist.

Other adult smokers who may wish to try disposables to quit in the future, will have reduced access.

Growth of the black market

The big winners from a ban will be the organised crime gangs that operate the black-market. Bans don't stop supply, they simply hand it over to unregulated markets and criminal suppliers, beyond government control.

The Australian Alcohol and other Drugs Council says "the criminalisation of nicotine vaping risks "fuelling the black-market, causing worse health outcomes and even potentially putting people in prison when we should be trying to keep them out".

A ban will not protect teens

It is best if teens do not vape or smoke, but a ban on disposables will have little impact on access to vapes and may increase smoking.

Research from overseas has shown that attempts to reduce access to vapes for kids leads to more smoking, a counterproductive result

The research now shows that vaping reduces smoking overall in young people and has a net beneficial effect on population health.

What about the environment?

Over 90% of vape litter is from black-market disposable products over which there is currently no control. Vape litter will continue if disposables are banned, but are still used widely.

However, if vaping products are made legal, adult consumer products, a national recycling program could be introduced so the lithium, aluminium or metal housing and plastics can be recycled

What needs to be done?

Australia’s thriving black market for disposable vapes is largely due to the current restrictive, prescription-only regulation of vaping products. Getting a prescription is onerous and inconvenient, and the black market has stepped up to provide a  simple and cheap alternative.

The only way to eliminate a black-market is to replace it with a legally regulated one

Nicotine vaping products should be reclassified as consumer goods like cigarettes, to bring Australia into line with all other western countries, such as the UK, NZ, US and Canada.

Nicotine liquids could then be sold from licensed retail outlets with strict age verification at the time of purchase with harsh penalties and loss of licence for under-age sales, strict compliance measures and spot checks.

Under this model, the black-market would become less profitable, illicit sales of disposables would diminish over time, and be largely replaced by a legal, regulated market

Teens would have reduced access to vapes and adult smokers could readily access regulated products to help them quit and stay quit, including with high quality disposables. That's a win-win for public health.

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