The Vaping Bill Doubles Down on Failure

The Therapeutic Goods and Other Legislation Amendment (Vaping Reforms) Bill 2024 is set to be debated and voted on in the Senate on June 24. If the Senate bill is passed, Australia’s eight state and territory parliaments will each have to pass corresponding legislation. If they don’t, the survival of Australia’s restrictive approach to vaping is doubtful. The federal Health Minister, Mark Butler, is leading these de facto prohibition changes.

Australia began restricting nicotine vaping, a much safer way of taking nicotine than deadly smoking, in 2011. Since then, when evidence of policy failure has become apparent, Labor and Coalition governments have intensified the policy rather than consider other reasonable policy options. At the heart of this international tobacco control debate, harm reduction supporters are challenging advocates of abstinence from tobacco (and even nicotine) to allow safer nicotine options to be added to conventional tobacco policy.

In the last 20 years, the estimated global number of smokers of cigarettes only declined from 1.3 billion to 1.2 billion. But reduced risk products, including vaping, captured almost ten per cent of the global share of the smoking market.

Some 21,000 Australians and eight million people worldwide die from smoking related conditions every year. In stark contrast, there has not yet been a scientifically attributed death from a much safer nicotine product.

There were 281 submissions to the recent Federal Senate Inquiry into the bill. But it is not widely known that 236 submissions opposed the bill. This is in part because of unambiguous scientific evidence about the efficacy of vaping as an aid to quitting smoking cigarettes, and its significant harm-reduction effects relative to smoking combustible cigarettes.

Minister Butler’s draconian approach to vaping has already forced a number of legitimate vaping businesses catering only for adults to close. Other outlets will follow when their current stock runs out.  While it was previously legal for adults to import three month’s supply of vapes at a time, from March 1 such personal importation was also banned.  Because there was no need for legislative change, this only required making amendments to TGA regulations.

Much of the damage has already been done. But, if passed, Butler’s current legislative component will make things even worse. As leading WA vaping advocate Pam Mulholland points out, “What remains of this innovative harm-reduction industry (which is reaching its public health aims in New Zealand’s age-restricted regulated consumer market) will be criminalised.”

Since New Zealand began regulating vaping in 2020 aiming to make nicotine vaping more available than cigarettes, the New Zealand adult daily smoking rate has almost halved. That is roughly double the rate of the decline in Australia’s smoking rate over the same period. The adult daily smoking rate in New Zealand is expected to soon dip below five per cent, which is regarded as the elimination of smoking.

New Zealand does not have a vaping black market. Yet only about ten per cent of the Australian vaping market is supplied legally, with the remainder supplied by a flourishing and increasingly violent black market. Since 2023, in Australia criminal gangs fighting for control of this lucrative trade have set fire to over 80 tobacconist and vaping shops, three people have been shot dead in public and extortion of tobacconist and vaping shops has become rampant.

Youth vaping in New Zealand may be starting to decline. But youth vaping is much more common in Australia where the vaping black market is only too happy to supply customers of any age. It is reliably  estimated that in 2024 Australia will lose over $12 billion in government revenue over the next four years as smokers buy from the cigarette and tobacco black market.

In Australia there are approximately 1.7 million adult vapers, with numerous reports of vapers returning to smoking because it’s so much easier, and much cheaper to buy from the black market.

The vape black market is set to expand exponentially if the legal supply is restricted further. The recent acceleration in decline of Australia’s adult daily smoking rate has been helped by an increase in vaping thanks to the largely black market supply responding to growing demand. Should Australia celebrate a public health gain achieved by unlawful activity in defiance of government policy? The bankruptcy of Australia’s approach is demonstrated by comparing the outcomes of our hardline approach with pragmatic New Zealand.

Australia can also learn a lot from Sweden where Snus, a moist oral smokeless tobacco with minimal adverse effects is widely available. Snus became popular first among Swedish men a few decades ago and then more recently among Swedish women.  When it joined the European Union in 1992,Sweden negotiated an exemption to keep Snus legal.

In contrast, Snus is banned in every other European Union country. Sweden’s adult daily smoking rate is now only 5.6 per cent and likely to drop below five per cent very soon. This will make Sweden the first country to have effectively eliminated smoking. Compared to men in all other European Union countries, Swedish men have by far the lowest rate of cigarette smoking, smoking-related diseases and smoking-related deaths.

If the proposed The Therapeutic Goods and Other Legislation Amendment (Vaping Reforms) is passed, high youth vaping rates, only a slow decline in adult smoking, a violent and expanding vape black market and haemorrhaging government tax revenue will be the dismal legacy of Health Minister Butler and the Albanese government.
The most sensible approach would be for vaping products to be legalised and regulated in the same way as cigarettes. A predominantly regulated market provides the only hope that strict police prevention of underage purchasing of vapes could be reduced. Senior police have made it clear in recent parliamentary enquiries that enforcement of vaping laws is a very low priority for law enforcement.

Veteran drug harm reduction advocate Dr Alex Wodak AM, argues that ‘there are four groups that really matter in this policy issue. As we saw when needle syringe programs were introduced in the 1989s to slow HIV spread among and from people who inject drugs, drug users generally switch from higher to lower risk options when given the opportunity. First a trickle change and then a flood. Produces are also starting to transform from combustible cigarettes to reduced risk products. Philip Morris International, the world’s largest traded tobacco company, now earns about 40 per cent of its revenue from reduced risk products compared to less than one per cent in 2015.” 

As Dr Wodak explains, Increasingly, tobacco companies realise that the cigarette is obsolete. If a tobacco company does not transform, it will not survive. Investors, the third group, recognise this as the faster tobacco companies are transforming, the higher their share price. The fourth group, abstinence-oriented tobacco control, is fighting to prevent the inevitable disruption of the nicotine market from one delivered by smoke, causing eight million deaths worldwide every year, to another which is not harmless but is delivered at much lower risk.

Promising to eliminate a disliked form of drug use often works well politically for a while. But eventually many begin to realise that severely restrictive abstinence approaches usually fail, while at the same time producing nasty collateral damage. The evidence is now abundantly clear. The remaining question is whether our politicians are ready to accept that evidence.

In the Senate, the Green vote will be critical. I am reliably informed that they will move some amendments and that, if accepted, they will support the bill. As it happens, adults who vote Green have a higher vaping rate than voters for any other party. So it is likely that a Greens vote for Butler’s vaping bill will incur a cost in terms of loss of some votes. 

Pity the Greens politician who has to explain why cannabis use should be regulated while vaping is criminalised!

Ross Fitzgerald AM is Emeritus Professor of  History and Politics at Griffith University. His  most recent books include a memoir, Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the four boxed set, The Ascent of Everest: The Outrageous Adventures of Grafton Everest, co-authored with Ian McFadyen. 


15 thoughts on “The Vaping Bill Doubles Down on Failure

  • Podargus says:

    Nicotine is a poison and is extremely addictive. Vapes are just the latest fashion in nicotine addiction. Like cigarettes they have harmful additives. Proposing vapes as a way to get smokers off the habit is just ridiculous. Try cold turkey Ross, it is hard but it works. Sure beats sucking on some fancy dummy like an infant.
    But this is typical of the harm reduction lobby.
    Both tobacco products and vapes should be banned from entry to Australia just like other recreational drugs. But of course the legalize drugs lobby would be up in arms about that as well.
    It is rather sad to see a university professor advocating this sort of nonsense. But that is indicative of the standard of academia.

    • padraic says:

      Fully agree, Podargus. One could pose the question to those Greens and others (some financed by a US activist group) if you need to go cold turkey (AA) to get off the grog why is ok to keep on taking much more harmful drugs like ice, mdma, heroin etc as is now happening in the ACT and soon in Victoria. The reason why there is not much data on vaping harm is because nicotine takes longer to do its damage to the vascular system. Watch this space in 40 years time when governments (if they have listened to the activists) will have a fit of the vapours when they realise the (foreseeable) harm vaping has caused to the young people of today. The secret of successful marketing of a product is to have repeat sales, and nicotine based products fill the bill.

      • Patrick McCauley says:

        1. Smokers of tobacco and Vapes have paid so much extra tax by the time they get “Health problems’ they should be given Rolls Royce treatment for the rest of their natural lives.
        2. Five minutes ago, the (so called) ‘experts’ were advising me to take up vaping as a way to stop smoking. Now they want to claim that vaping is as bad as smoking. My research tells me that is a big fat lie. I don’t trust anything that “Health Experts’ say about anything – especially after their performance during the pandemic. They are Leftist fascists and proud of it.

        • padraic says:

          Smoking tobacco has two effects. One is lung damage or lung cancer plus other cancers from the carcinogens in the smoke from the burnt organic material (ditto marihuana). The other is damage to the vascular system from regular nicotine intake irrespective of whether that intake is from smoking or regular vaping of nicotine. Vaping nicotine will stop smoking if it is reduced gradually to zero use, not if it is used to substitute for smoking. I learnt about this in the 70s when my father, who started smoking when he was about 12, was diagnosed with emphysema as a result of smoking. At the time nicotine chewing gum had been marketed as a way of stopping smoking by replacing tobacco with the chewing gum at the high strength and after a while switching to the lower strength and then gradually getting off it altogether. The gum could only be obtained from a chemist with a doctor’s prescription. This meant that the person was well monitored and supported by the doctor and the treatment was very effective. Dad thought about the gum but decided instead to go cold turkey and despite some grumpiness, managed to stop smoking and lived longer than if he had continued. Later on they introduced a system of patches with I think 3 strengths so you started on the high strength and finished on the lowest strength and finally got off smoking. That was alright when the doctor was assisting the person but was a disaster when these products became finally available in supermarkets with no health professional oversight, when they could easily become just a nicotine substitute (as they did in many cases). Some years back a work colleague who was a smoker decided to give it up and bought some high strength patches to get off smoking, so he threw away his cigarettes and put on the high strength patch. He did this each day with a new high strength patch and it controlled his craving and was using the patch as a substitute for smoking. One evening he attended a function where the grog flowed and after he had had a lot to drink someone offered him a cigarette, which used to happen as a sociable gesture. Forgetting he had on the patch he had a couple of smokes. The nicotine from those plus the patch lifted his blood levels to toxic levels and he had to be ambulanced to the nearest hospital emergency department. Cases of death in America from similar incidents were reported at the time.

        • john mac says:

          Agreed , Patrick. Never give the authorities more power over us. Pod and Pad are a bit of a worry : what next- ban alcohol, chocolate, potato chips? The self-righteous know no bounds, all for our own good of course ! BTW, I have never smoked, but realise that it was invented by humans for a reason, and yes. I’ve long said that they pay taxes on my behalf and I’m sure that the revenue raised is greater than the cost , and that if smokers die younger, they are not a burden on the pension scheme. Not to mention the industry employment. Also , I would posit that smoking and vaping amongst union members would be higher than the rest of society. Would they be backing Labor’s plan?

    • norsaint says:

      Who cares if smoking is bad for you? We can all make our own decisions without having self-important power freaks making them for us.

  • March says:

    Good article Ross.
    The ridiculous and harmful vape bans are only the start,
    They’ll be after my beer, scotch fillet steak and Shiraz next.

    How about we let adults decide what they choose to imbibe?

    • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

      Yairs, if someone wants to smoke or drink or whatever human beings invent to harm themselves, the problem is theirs and not for a big brother approach for as you state, they will ban whatever suits them. I was an extremely devout pipe smoker insofar that I smoked “Three Nuns” pipe tobacco, but gave up that habit some twenty five and more years ago when the Govt. started raising taxes on tobacco in every budget. A two ounce tin of pipe tobacco back then cost a few dollars but now costs between $136 and $143 for 50 grams so there is a tax windfall there and probably that tax revenue would surpass the hospital treatment costs incurred by smokers by a large amount. Of course another side benefit for government if the legislation passes is the employment gain for lots and lots of public servants will need hiring to print rules, regulations, inspections, policing, and stuff like that, all at taxpayer expense of course.

  • lbloveday says:

    “…..the only hope that strict police prevention of underage purchasing of vapes could be reduced”.
    Why hope prevention is reduced? To me, it would be better if prevention of underage purchasing were increased.

  • Daffy says:

    There must be an age at which talking up cigars would have no statistical affect on mortality. I’m surprised tobacconists don’t advertise this age. For the new customers it would be a no risk deal.
    I’m surprised the Cancer Council isn’t onto this. People would appreciate a positive message: ‘Avoid cancer take up smoking when you are 87’ (all other factors being equal, of course).

  • RB says:

    There is one reason vapes have been banned, budget holes.
    5 billion in revenue vapes have cost the feds budget.
    The holier than thou crowd will go good!
    For those addicted…not so much.
    $75 for a packet of 40.
    $30 per month if one vapes.
    It is about revenue not health.

  • Keir Anderson says:

    Well said Ross.

    Nicotine based vaping is much safer than smoking cigarettes. It makes zero sense that the Australian government is trying to ban vaping, when the much more deadly cigarettes can be bought anywhere.

    Nicotine is addictive, but the health negatives are negligible. This is pure nanny statism.

    • Brian Boru says:

      “This is pure nanny statism”. I agree although I have to abhor the practice of smoking. It’s now about 50 years since I did.
      I believe that major mistakes have been made in the campaigns against smoking. The move against vapes is only one.
      My instinct is that most young people start because of a kind of bravado despite the warnings. The anti-smoking people don’t seem to have realised this.
      It would be much more effective instead of solely focusing on health consequences and thereby feeding that bravado if an intellectual approach was taken. Young smokers should be continually publicly branded as being of lower intelligence. Youngsters could be shown as belittling relationships with smokers because of that evidence of low intelligence.
      If that sort of intellectual approach was taken, with all the resources currently wasted on enforcement, smoking would quickly become unfashionable.

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    Government Detox Units and Psyche wards will not allow either tobacco smoking or Vapes even though almost all addicts smoke. So there are many addicts who are unable to detoxify or enter into Rehab Units because of this intractable and authoritarian decree by Governments not allowing smoking – my daughter is one who is still out there amongst the bad drugs and the alcoholics due to the fact that she cannot face Rehabilitation and Detox Units as they ban smoking and vapes. The Royal Melbourne Hospital would allow her cigarettes but not vapes the last time she was admitted due to a suicide attempt – what is that ? It has taken me years to get her to agree to Vape rather than smoke and now even the doctors and the hospitals have gone mad. The Covid pandemic has turned the Health Industry into authoritarian monsters whose ‘professional’ attitude is to treat people as pieces of meat, and whose ‘expertise’ is highly questionable – especially since they demanded Vaccine mandates in full knowledge that the vaccines were unsafe and did not work.

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