Australian health minister Greg Hunt has announced new policies that will make it nearly impossible for vapers to import nicotine, and will impose draconian penalties on those who get caught trying. The changes were announced while the country’s parliament is on recess until August, and will take effect on July 1—just 11 days away.
Australia’s position on vaping has always been an outlier among western democracies. The country has banned all recreational nicotine products, except cigarettes, and refuses to recognize the value of consumer nicotine products like e-cigarettes for harm reduction. Just last week, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced it would not change the policy to allow sales of heated tobacco products (HTPs).
There existed, however, a loophole that allowed vapers able to obtain a nicotine prescription from a doctor to import small quantities for personal use. Additionally, many vapers buy nicotine without a prescription from online retailers in China and other countries. Restrictions on nicotine imports have not been strictly enforced—but that is about to change.
The new policies will include cooperation between the Department of Health and the Australian Border Force to enforce the import ban. Hunt has also added brutal penalties for those caught violating the new rules, including fines of up to 222,000 Australian dollars (about $152,000 US).
Vapers who have already ordered and paid for nicotine being shipped to the country are not exempt from seizures and penalties. According to the TGA, any nicotine arriving on or after July 1 can be seized. That would even include orders that had been placed before the announcement of the new policy.
Products not subject to the new rules include cigarettes and nicotine replacement therapy products, which can be purchased without a prescription in Australia. Yes, that is correct: medical cessation products require no prescription, but recreational consumer products do—except the most dangerous one, which is freely available in every corner store across the country.
In theory, nicotine will still be legal for those vapers who have doctor’s prescription. However, since nicotine can no longer be imported, it will have to be bought from a pharmacy. And in a classic Catch-22, pharmacies aren’t allowed by state law to carry nicotine.
“Only a handful of Australian doctors are willing to write nicotine prescriptions under current laws,” wrote Dr. Colin Mendelsohn of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA). “Even fewer will be willing to comply with the complex and time-consuming requirements of the new plan.
“Under the new laws, vapers are no longer able to import nicotine e-liquid for their own personal use. Only medical suppliers or pharmacists can import nicotine with permission granted by the Health department.
“The proposal suggests that pharmacists could make up nicotine solutions for vapers who have a prescription. However, pharmacists need permission to possess and import nicotine from the state health departments. All have so far refused to give permission for this purpose.”
So, unless pharmacies are willing to lobby state governments to change their laws regarding nicotine possession—which they probably would have already done, if they considered it worthwhile—the new TGA policy is an effective ban on legal nicotine vaping. Hunt and the TGA have designed an airtight regulatory maze that will prevent smokers from accessing low-risk vaping products.
Less than two years ago, it appeared that the Australian Liberal party position on nicotine might be changing. Even Greg Hunt, who once said nicotine vaping would never be legal “on my watch,” seemed ready to soften his position under pressure. But Hunt returned to his drug war stance quickly. (You can read an excellent timeline of Hunt’s history regarding vaping and nicotine in this Twitter thread by Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance executive director Brian Marlow.)
Now Greg Hunt has reaffirmed his reputation as a diehard nicotine drug warrior and prohibitionist. And Australian vapers and smokers will suffer because of it.