In its second major anti-vaping initiative in the last two years, Australia will ban the import of all vaping products sold without a prescription, including e-liquid and hardware that contains no nicotine. The government announced the measures today, and issued a document outlining its long-term vaping and tobacco plan.
“Australia needs to reclaim its position as a world leader on tobacco control,” said health minister Mark Butler.
The government actions represent a response to growing moral panic over a wave of cheap disposable nicotine vapes sold in convenience stores. But the ban of all imported hardware and zero-nicotine e-liquid will also put the country’s vape shops out of business.
Even for prescription nicotine vaping products, rules will be tightened. Non-tobacco flavors will not be allowed, and products will be sold only in plain packaging like pharmaceutical products. The government says it will also reduce allowable nicotine strengths and ban disposable vapes outright.
The Labor Party government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, which took office in May 2022, has vowed to “reduce smoking and stamp out vaping,” just as its predecessor had. Albanese has earmarked $737 million of Australia’s 2023-24 budget for tobacco control measures, including over $200 million for its Drug War-style vaping response alone.
Health minister Mark Butler blames the tobacco industry—which sells no vaping products in Australia—for creating a “new generation of nicotine addicts.”
“Just like they did with smoking, big tobacco has taken another addictive product, wrapped it in shiny packaging and added flavours to create a new generation of nicotine addicts,” Butler was expected to say in a speech, according to The Guardian, which received an advance copy. (“Big Tobacco” didn’t invent vaping, and non-tobacco flavors were largely a user innovation.)
Cigarettes will continue to be sold in every corner store in Australia—no prescription required.
In its press release announcing the new measures, Butler says new tobacco taxes will raise an additional $3.3 billion over the next four years, and describes in detail how the money will be distributed. Australia already has one of the highest cigarette tax rates in the world, which has led to a large illicit tobacco market. Now more Australians than ever will turn to the black market, but for vaping products.
Nicotine vaping products are already banned in Australia without a prescription. The success of the “new” ban will largely rest on the government’s ability to choke off imports and punish retailers that sell already-illegal disposable vapes. The government says it will work with the states to remove vaping products from general retailers like convenience stores and gas stations.
Intensified nicotine panic in the country could also lead to criminal prosecutions for vaping consumers. Possession of Schedule 4 medicines (as nicotine is classified) without a prescription can be punished by up to a $45,000 fine or two years in prison, depending on which state or territory the offender is arrested in.
Nicotine vaping products have been illegal in Australia without a prescription for many years, but the laws have been widely ignored by vapers, who imported nicotine from overseas and made their own e-liquid or bought zero-nicotine vape juice from vape shops and added nicotine.
In 2021, the previous Liberal coalition government launched a revised prescription-only model for nicotine vaping products, and promised to ramp up border enforcement. However, few doctors chose to participate in the prescription program, and most consumers weren’t interested. Vape shops were allowed to continue selling zero-nicotine e-liquid and vaping hardware that contained no nicotine. Soon after, disposable vapes flooded Australia (and the rest of the world).
The current government says it will make it “easier to get a prescription for legitimate therapeutic use,” but it’s not clear that vaping consumers will be eager to jump through medical hoops to buy flavorless or tobacco-flavored, low-nicotine vape products.