By; Dr. Colin Mendelsohn
The nationwide panic about youth vaping has recently dominated Australian media with daily reports of young people accessing these products. Youth vaping is a legitimate concern, however it has distracted us from the main purpose of vaping as an quitting aid for adult smokers and the huge potential benefit it brings to public health.
Australia’s experience with vaping is unique. Australia is the only western country to require a doctor’s prescription to vape with nicotine liquids, breaking ranks with its global counterparts.
The prescription-only model aimed to restrict youth vaping while enabling adult smokers to access the product to help them quit smoking. However, after 18 months, it is clear that it has failed on both counts. A dangerous, thriving black market has developed, happily selling dodgy disposable products to young people. Meanwhile, adult smokers — for whom vaping can be lifesaving — find it almost impossible to access nicotine vapes legally.
It’s easy to get lost in the emotion here – young people should not smoke or vape.
However, the growth of youth vaping has sparked widespread alarm that has dangerously changed the perception of vaping products. We’ve all seen reports of so-called “health warnings” about vaping; “The new vaping epidemic”. We’ve read anecdotal accounts of health issues sparked by vaping. We’ve even heard that vaping may be worse for us than smoking.
This is all patently untrue. Vaping products are certainly not risk-free, but the science has shown vaping to be far less harmful than smoking, around 5% of the risk of deadly cigarettes. Importantly, its effectiveness as a smoking cessation aid is now undeniable.
In New Zealand, smoking rates are falling faster than ever. Since vaping was legalised in 2020, the adult smoking rate has declined by an unprecedented 33% in two years.
Just this week, the UK government released its annual report on adult smoking habits, which found that in 2021, 13.3% of adult smoked, a 5% decrease from 2020. The report concluded that “vaping devices such as e-cigarettes have played a major role in the decrease in smoking prevalence in the UK.”
However, in Australia, adult smoking has declined by about 2% per year since 2013.
A recent modelling study found that Australia will fail to reach its daily adult smoking target of less than 5% by 2030 by a wide margin. The authors of that study concluded that the strict prescription-only model is a major barrier to higher rates of quitting.
Despite Australia’s strict tobacco control laws and having the highest cigarette prices in the world, fewer adult smokers are quitting because there simply aren’t effective alternatives that work for most people.
Clearly, Australia desperately needs to reboot its vaping story and fix the mistakes the prohibitionist model created.
Outright bans and heavy restrictions are only placing the government in a position where they can’t control vaping at all. Black markets simply cannot be regulated.
Instead, the government needs to look at a fresh approach that creates a legal market for adult smokers. By drawing adult vapers into a legitimate regulated market like other adult consumer products (i.e., alcohol and even cigarettes), the black-market will become less profitable and will diminish. Sever penalties and loss of licence should apply to retailers who sell to minors, child-proof packaging will reduce the risk of accidental exposure, and more adult smokers will quit deadly cigarettes.
The result will be a substantial acceleration in the decline of Australia’s smoking rate, and protection for our young Australians to prevent them from accessing vaping products.
Australia was once a leader in tobacco control. It’s not too late for it to become one again.
[The author is a member of the Smoking Cessation Guideline Expert Advisory Group that develops the RACGP Australian national smoking cessation guidelines. He is also the Founding Chairman of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association, a registered health promotion charity dedicated to raising awareness of low-risk nicotine products as a substitute for smoking for smokers who can’t quit. He is the the author of a book, Stop Smoking Start Vaping. Thanks for his contribution for readers of Tribune International]