Nicotine Vaping and the Law: An interview with Dr Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation

Poppy Morandin.

 

Regulations regarding nicotine vaping products could soon be changed, with a Select Committee on Tobacco Harm Reduction set to report by 1 December 2020.

The Select Committee with inquire into tobacco reduction strategies, with specific reference to the health impacts of allowing vaping, the effectiveness of the method as a quitting aid and concerns regarding up-take of vaping by non- smokers or young people.

“Vaping is a very divisive issue in Australia and has been for some time. While there is some form of disagreement about vaping and related tobacco products in other countries, I do not think there is any other country where the debate is as polarised as it is in Australia.” commented Dr Alex Wodak, President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation.

The Select Committee follows the government’s announcement that it intended to request that the Customs (Prohibited Import) Regulations be amended in order to prohibit the importation of e-cigarettes containing vaporiser nicotine (nicotine in solution or in salt or base form) and nicotine-containing refills unless on prescription from a doctor, from 1 January 2021.

The delay until January 2021 came after fierce backlash, from Minister for Health, Greg Hunt’s own party and assorted pressure from vaping groups.

“Australia’s medical experts, including the AHPPC, have warned of the health dangers of e-cigarettes. This is consistent with the existing ban in all states and territories on the sale of e-cigarettes containing vaporiser nicotine and further strengthens Australia’s precautionary approach to e-cigarettes, by prohibiting the importation of nicotine for use in e-cigarettes unless exempt under specific circumstances” stated Mr Hunt.

Currently whilst it is illegal to use or possess liquid nicotine unless it is prescribed by a doctor in all states, it is currently not an offence to import nicotine e-liquid into Australia under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956, and an import permit is not required for this.

From January 2021, there will be incredibly harsh penalties for importing, attempting to import, and possessing a prohibited import, without a prescription, including a fine of over $200,000.

Even once an individual gains a prescription, they will not be permitted to bring the product into Australia by international surface or airmail services.

The doctor must apply for permission to import, and if successful, may use a courier service.

Alternatively, a commercial organisation that handles prescription e-cigarettes may apply for a permit and import the products through these routes.

Currently in NSW, there are already penalties for acquiring, using and/or possessing liquid nicotine unless it is prescribed by a doctor to help you quit or cut down smoking.

Liquid nicotine is considered a ‘dangerous poison’ under schedule 7 of the Poisons Standard.

If prescribed for therapeutic use, then it is considered a Schedule 4 product, in which case it can be used for personal use.

The maximum penalty is a $1,100 fine under the Poisons and Therapeutic Goods Regulation 2008.

“The consequence of this is that if you are one of the almost 3 million Australians who smokes, it’s very difficult from switching to the very risky way of taking in nicotine, that is smoking cigarettes, to a much less risky method like vaping and other forms of tobacco harm reduction.” explained Dr Wodak.

Under the changes, the Australian customs will be able to impound and destroy any unauthorised imports, with an ability to impound and destroy them.

“We know from bits of research that many people will go back to smoking or go back to the black market which will only grow more diverse and dynamic – these options are not good options.” said Dr Wodak.

Furthermore, it is alleged that due to the lack of official endorsement and consensus, few doctors in Australia prescribe nicotine.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, the use of sale to adults of e-cigarettes is legal.

“When you look at countries where vaping has become much popular, like the UK where over 6% of people vape, we see that the decline in smoking rates accelerated in the UK and US around 2013 which is when vaping became popular in both countries. Their smoking rate is going down much faster than ours.” explained Dr Wodak.

Supporters of vaping in Australia have sought to connect the debate with domestic history regarding drug harm reduction methods.

“There’s opposition to every new drug harm reduction method in Australia.

“The minute you say you want to treat people who use drugs with respect, recognising their human rights and trying to improve their health, there’s controversy. You can see that with the issue of methadone treatment for those struggling with heroine problems, there was enormous controversy and fierce resistance…We are still having the debate about pill testing.

“Vaping is just another one of those drug harm reduction methods, that is fiercely resisted.” summarised Dr Wodak.

In Australia, latest statistics show tobacco use contributed to an estimated 21,000 deaths, or more than one in eight, in 2015.

Two out of three smokers will die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.

“Smokers don’t want to die early; they don’t want to get a lung disease but they enjoy nicotine, so they move to a less risky option…Vaping is at most 5% of the risk of smoking, we should be doing everything in our power to help people switch to the safest option, in their interest.” suggested Dr Wodak.

Notably, Australia has some of the highest tobacco prices in the world, so those who struggle to quit may often face financial hardship.

“We know that someone smoking 20 cigarettes a day will spend $12,500 per year on cigarettes while if they vaped, they’re only going to spend around $1500. Smoking rates among the lowest income Australians are more than twice as high as among the highest income earners in Australia. Low income smokers tend to smoke more cigarettes a day and they tend to start at an early age which means they have more difficulty giving up.” explained Dr Wodak.

Recent research from Cochrane TAG has found that vaping was 66% more effective than any quit smoking aide.

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