Call me cynical, but sweeping new restrictions on vaping products announced alongside an increase to tobacco excise tax is not about public health. 

Australia’s increasingly authoritarian and out-of-touch attitude to enforcement of public health measures has struck again, this time in the form of sweeping new restrictions on e-cigarette products. This is despite the fact that vaping is widely recognised as being safer than tobacco cigarettes, while also being credited with helping smokers quit the habit. 

Now, Australia’s new ban on single use and non-prescription ‘vapes’ will stretch enforcement and health agencies, give rise to an already rampant black market, and force vapers back onto expensive and harmful cigarettes.

The government is ignoring the evidence

The Australian Federal Government has opted for sensationalism and grandstanding on a key public health issue as opposed to following a sensible evidence-based policy solution. 

A growing body of medical research indicates not only that e-cigarettes are less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, but also provide a more effective pathway for nicotine-addicted smokers seeking to quit the habit. This is evidenced in New Zealand, where a strong regulatory framework for e-cigarettes exists and smoking rates have fallen by 25 percent. 

A Cochrane review of several studies on vaping showed that e-cigarettes containing nicotine were the most effective in terms of helping smokers quit within six months. Nonetheless, the Australian government and media decries vaping products as an insidious plot by tobacco companies to get the next generation hooked on nicotine via attractive flavors and colors. 

Another nonsensical narrative that has emerged in recent years is the call for a pause on the grounds of uncertainty over potential “long-term effects” — an overcautious approach that appears unique to the debate around vaping. All of this disregards evidence such as UK public health research from 2015 which concluded that vaping could be as much as 95 percent less harmful than smoking cigarettes. The importance of this harm reduction cannot be overstated.

Why prohibition of e-cigarettes will prove extremely harmful

As it so often is, the Australian Federal Government’s response is enforcement-based and seeks to criminalize a practice they don’t like. The fundamental fact that prohibition simply does not work just doesn’t seem to get through to those in charge. In fact, prohibition largely results in black markets emerging that endanger consumers with potentially faulty or dangerous products while enriching criminals. 

The prescription model that has been adopted will only serve to clog up the health system and enforcement of the measures will be a drain on police resources and finances, which are already close to breaking point. Not only this, but these new measures expose a certain hypocrisy in terms of public health, where certain products like e-cigarettes and cannabis are subject to bans whereas alcohol and cigarettes — known to cause many poor health outcomes — are permitted and heavily taxed.   

Speaking of cigarettes and tax, it was announced that, alongside the new vaping restrictions, tobacco excise would increase by 5 percent over 3 years in addition to indexation. 

I can’t be the only one skeptical of the real motivations behind the move to crack down on vaping products while increasing the tax burden on smokers — who are often members of the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups. While it would be quite a statement to suggest that Health Minister Mark Butler is really trying to encourage smoking in order to help fund government programs that are continually bloating in cost, I do find it suspicious that we are bucking the international trend of accepting and regulating vaping.

Many OECD countries such as the US and the UK have embraced the public health benefits of vaping as a means to reduce smoking rates, despite the prevailing narrative that e-cigarettes provide a “gateway” to tobacco products. 

Smoking is still the number one cause of preventable disease in Australia — killing about 20,000 people annually. The existing black market for vaping products that persists amid the current (failing) prescription model has resulted in dodgy producers and vendors being both willing and able to sell to anyone — including children. It’s hard to see how this dire situation will improve so long as prohibition remains the Australian government’s strategy.

Vaping restrictions in Australia are another sad reflection of the lack of political will to engage with rational, evidence-based policy. At best, it’s a doubling down on already failing attempts at prohibition. At worst, it’s an insidious plot to increase tax revenue at the expense of the poorest and sickest people in society amid worsening economic conditions.

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