Australia’s Anti-Tobacco Harm Reduction Movement Continues

While Australia's Health Minister Mark Butler has announced further restrictions on vaping products, it is obvious that more of the same is not going to cut it. In line with evidence from countries adopting a progressive tobacco harm reduction (THR) approach, research has indicated that relaxing current regulations would be effective at decreasing local smoking rates.

Last May Health Minister Mark Butler announced a crackdown on vaping products, including further harsh restrictions, which as countless smoking cessation experts pointed out, would ultimately just make the products more inaccessible to adult smokers than they currently are.

In August, plans of further restrictions were revealed in the name of reducing local tobacco use, and subsequently last week, Butler announced more harsh measures. Non-surprisingly, his focus remains on vaping products, which he views as a threat that needs to be eliminated, rather than an opportunity to help people quit smoking.

As might be expected, Australian states have been taking matters in their own hands. Only last week news reports from New South Wales (NSW) revealed that over 182,000 vapes were seized by NSW Health last year, with the number increasing by 500% over the past three years. Over the same period, the number of inspections have more than doubled, from 1,343 in 2020 to 3,379 in 2022.

Meanwhile, many schools across Australia have been installing vape detectors. Reports from Canberra revealed that students are increasingly being caught in possession of vapes looking like pens, highlighters, flash drives or small flasks.

Earlier this year, South Australia’s Education Minister Blair Boyer called for a national approach to tackling the “teen vaping issue” and is planning to raise it with his federal counterpart Jason Clare. While the state’s Health Minister Chris Picton, added that vaping is becoming more of a problem and increasingly prevalent in schools.

The harsh vape laws are feeding a thriving black market
Sadly, in response to the restrictions on vape sales set in place last year, Australia’s teens (as predicted by many) have been turning to the black market in order to obtain their preferred products, or purchasing them from overseas. Such behavioural patterns have been observed worldwide in countries where the products have been either banned or over regulated.

Moreover, had reported that many tobacconists across Australia had been selling disposable vapes under the counter, while delivery services are still reportedly easy to access via social media. Australian tobacco harm reduction expert Dr. Colin Mendelsohn, had rightly highlighted that the prescription model introduced in Australia does not work as it makes the products difficult to access, creating a higher demand and subsequent growth in the black market.

“The government’s set up this complex system which just isn’t working; to find a GP who will prescribe and then to find a pharmacy that will sell it – it’s just not a workable solution,” he said. “So people are going to the black market to buy unregulated products and the black market is thriving and selling these products to kids.”

Australian pharmacies enter a deal with tobacco giant
Meanwhile, last July some Australian pharmacies agreed to an eye brow raising supply deal with Philip Morris International (PMI), the tobacco company which has been open about opposing the government’s prescription vaping model. The deal means that PMI is offering the pharmacies an “introductory offer” to supply its nicotine pods and devices at an 80% margin, on the condition that they sign a supply agreement with Philip Morris International (PMI) directly.

The offer is also on the condition that the pharmacies do not sell a packet of two VEEV nicotine pods for more than $14.90 or devices for more than $19.90 – cheaper than what wholesalers can offer. The recommended retail price for comparable pod products is $24.99. The marketing material for the offer only mentions PMI in fine print at the bottom of the document.

Discussing the deal, Mendelsohn offered a positive perspective. “We all hate the tobacco companies, but the priority for me is for smokers to quit as soon as possible with whatever works for them, even if this is with a tobacco company product. I would much prefer the tobacco industry to make safer nicotine alternatives than combustible cigarettes and i think they should be encouraged to make that transition. If we discourage that, they will go back to deadly cigarette production.”

Study reiterates that relaxing the local vape regulations would do the job
Echoing this same THR-focused mindset, last year, a group of tobacco control researchers looked into possible scenarios whereby Australia’s current nicotine vaping product (NVP) restrictions were relaxed, and what the possible outcomes of that would be.

Titled, “The Australia Smoking and Vaping Model: The Potential Impact of Increasing Access to Nicotine Vaping Products,” the study first developed a Restricted NVP Scenario  to project current smoking and vaping rates, by calibrating a US smoking model to recent Australian trends. While to model less restrictive NVP policies, a Permissive NVP Scenario applied rates of switching from smoking to vaping, initiation into NVP and cigarette use, and cessation from smoking and vaping, based on US trends. The research confirmed the potential public health which would be gained by maintaining cigarette-oriented policies strict, whilst relaxing the current restrictive NVP policy.