Comment: Can Australia still fix its current crisis on vaping?

Vaping is a growing problem among young people. Photo: File

Dr Colin Mendelsohn

 

Take a step back and think.

Two years ago, vaping sat at the periphery of our collective consciousness – a less harmful product used to help smokers quit.

In only 24 months, we’ve reached a situation where headlines of vaping misuse are scrawled daily across the front pages of our newspapers.

Vaping has come to be seen as a scourge on society.

No longer is vaping discussed in terms of its lifesaving potential for smokers, but as a product hooking a new generation on nicotine.

What has changed?

Back in 2020, the previous government announced new restrictions in vaping. Smokers are now required to get a nicotine prescription from a doctor to switch legally to vaping.

These changes occurred during Australia’s biggest health crisis and during a time of severe doctor shortages.

Very few doctors are willing to prescribe nicotine, very few pharmacists are willing to dispense it and unnecessary additional expenses were placed on consumers and an overstretched Medicare.

At the time, I stated these changes were gravely dangerous, would substantially hamper quit attempts by adult smokers and would create a predatory black market.

Now, we’ve seen the outcome of one of the greatest public health policy failures of the last decade.

The black market is pervasive, with dodgy disposable vapes being sold blatantly throughout the country to young people.

Vaping is running rampant through our schools. And the people who need most to quit smoking have been left behind by a government who should be supporting them.

A new government in 2022 saw a great opportunity to finally implement progressive tobacco harm reduction policies and support almost three million smokers and two million adult vapers.

Unfortunately, the federal government fell victim to sensationalist misinformation and ruled out progressive changes which could solve the issues now pervasive across our country.

They announced a consultation from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in the dying days of 2022, proposing misguided reforms they said would solve the black market and enable access for smokers wishing to quit.

Instead, the TGA’s proposed reforms will cause further harm to public health as more adult smokers and ex-smokers are forced onto the dangerous black market, galvanising its power, and putting more young people at risk.

Without making its recommendations public, the TGA is now working with the federal government to provide advice on these potential reforms.

To be totally clear, a tightly regulated adult consumer market is the only way to eliminate the black market.

Any other methods of regulation will simply fail.

Despite the TGA’s proposal, there are positive developments at both the federal and state level for effective nicotine vaping policy.

The National Party is putting its power behind a sensible consumer model.

This is an important step and strong commitment to evidence-based reforms which will work.

In NSW, the Greens unveiled an election promise to regulate nicotine vaping products as consumer products.

The Tasmanian Greens have also expressed their support. And NSW Labor’s progressive harm reduction philosophy will hopefully lead to the implementation of the same effective reforms.

We are also in the midst of inquiries by parliaments in Queensland and the Northern Territory into vaping regulations.

Where the TGA’s consultation failed, hopefully Queensland and the Northern Territory will introduce evidence-based reforms.

As it stands, the question of how to regulate these products has become an emotional one.

Emotions and policy never go hand in hand.

Public policy should be based on evidence.

We know, for a fact, that vaping is 95 per cent less harmful than smoking.

We know for a fact it is the most effective and most popular quitting aid available. And we know for a fact that prohibitionist policies will always lead to a dangerous black market.

With the correct regulations in place, adult smokers and ex-smokers would access these products from a safe and regulated market with strict protections in place to avoid youth access.

We are at a turning point.

The TGA and federal health department are stubbornly pursuing policy objectives which will do nothing but fail.

But there is hope. Some of our lawmakers are finally pushing for effective reforms.

The decisions they make now will either create a worsening public health disaster or turn the current vaping regulations into a fading black spot in our country’s history.

 

Dr Colin Mendelsohn is a member of the Smoking Cessation Guideline Expert Advisory Group and founding chairman of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association.