In April, 2021 a major Sydney GPS school suspended eight country boarding students who had been reported for vaping on the bus bringing them back to school after the school holidays. This was far from an isolated incident. Schools have been writing to parents threatening suspension for vaping. Convenience stores across Australia are awash with disposable nicotine vapes with sickly sweet chemical fruit flavours, all of course with iron-clad guarantees of being totally unappealing to kids.

Because they contain nicotine, their sale is totally illegal. In NSW, the Department of Health has seized stock and prosecuted a small number of sellers. If you bother to go searching, they also have a webpage where you can report retailers selling these highly profitable training wheels for many years of nicotine addiction. No data have been released about how many reports have been made to the webpage, but you can bet there is a giant chasm between report numbers, investigations by Health Department officials and court prosecutions.

All Big Tobacco companies are now neck deep in manufacturing vapes as well as their cigarette mainstays. With giant fingers crossed behind their backs, they all publicly sing the industry song that they really, truly want all their adult cigarette customers to stop smoking and switch to vaping. When confronted with data on the dramatic rise in teenage vaping,  spin from the industry and its tame vaping advocate quislings goes like this:

  1. Awr … that’s so unfortunate. Please, please kids, understand that vaping is meant to be for adults. And you don’t want people to think you’re like an adult do you!
  2. But anyway, nicotine is not dangerous. Indeed,  it’s almost a vitamin-like wonder drug. It’s tar and carbon monoxide from burning tobacco that are the problem. So all relax and let vaping rip.
  3. So what if kids vape? It’s better that they vape than smoke. We are actually doing public health god’s work these days! (conveniently omitting to mention that  smoking  — and any nicotine use —  by kids is at an all-time record low – see chart at end)

So how has it happened that vaping is exploding among kids in Australia? 

In June last year, health minister Greg Hunt announced that personal imports of nicotine vaping products (NVPs) would be prohibited, harmonising vapes with the law preventing individuals from importing cigarettes and tobacco products without a special permit which has been in place since March 2019. A backbench revolt by a brainstrust of 28 Nationals and Liberals including the usual suspects (Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan, George Christensen, Eric Abetz, Tim Wilson, James Paterson,  Jason Falinski, Trent Zimmerman, Dave Sharma,  Amanda Stoker, Bridget McKenzie and good friend of British American Tobacco Australia’s lobbyist Michael Kauter, Hollie Hughes) saw health minister Greg Hunt forced to shelve the plan soon afterwards.

Here’s the letter the 28 sent to Greg Hunt

The Nationals received $55,000 from Philip Morris as “gold” level support in 2019-20. Money well spent!

The import ban was originally proposed by Hunt as critical to the success of the decision of the Therapeutic Goods Administration to require all those wanting to legally access NVP to have a doctor’s prescription after Oct 1, 2021. Those importing will also need to have a prescription, but there are a bewildering number of questions needing clarification to assess how the rubber will meet the road or whether the whole scheme will be a fizzer.

These include

  1. How will these import shipments be described?
  2. What will stop exporters mislabelling them as other goods?
  3. How will the required prescriptions be attached to shipment manifests?
  4. How will exporters check that prescriptions are valid  and not photoshopped?
  5. How will they ensure a prescription hasn’t been used repeatedly, perhaps by on-sellers?
  6. How will post office workers or couriers open imported packages to see if the contents are permitted under the prescription?
  7. How will they know the person receiving them is who was named on the prescription?
  8. How will they ensure the person receiving them is over 18, as required?

Quite obviously, the import scheme will see both individual vapers and entrepreneurs exploit many of these.  There will be so many ways for those who won’t be bothered to get a NVP license and kids to game the importation route. I often get courier delivered goods and it’s common for the delivery guy to just ask you for your name without any ID requirement, or for you to dash out any old signature on their digital machine.

Retail availability of  Disposable Nicotine Vaping Products (DNVPs)  in Australia

DNVPs are already being heavily marketed and sold via social media platforms in plain sight. A simple search for the brand ‘Puff Bar’ on Instagram provides  this array of opportunites:

Direct from China online retailing into Australia

With the rise in popularity, availability and production of DNVPs, both genuine and illicit (although the two are most often indistinguishable), came the rise in direct from China online retailing.  A brief desktop search finds a number of offshore retail sites for DNVPs, most of which appear to be for direct from China sales:

These sites often bear typical signatures of direct from China retail sites with  clear syntactical errors in the English translation, consistent with machine translation. The sites themselves are typically ‘au’ specific sub-sites of international domains.

If you go to Facebook marketplace and search for “fruit”, “mixed fruit” or “fruit bars” you’ll be deluged with offers to buy NVPs, in twee ads like those below that, your honour, are not for vapes at all, but for mixed fruit. A phone call to the numbers shown finds that all the fruit you hoped for has sadly sold out, but if you’d like bulk buy vapes you’re in luck!

“Fruit” on sale on Facebook Marketplace

Disposable NVPs are sold at very low price point so the manufacturing standards used in DNVPs are commensurately low. It is simply not possible to manufacture a high quality, reliable and safe NVP at this price point. Cheap e-cigs use cheap batteries. Exploding ecig batteries are primarily due to the use of cheap, untested and uncertified lithium-ion batteries. As seen in news reports of exploding devices, the exothermic (explosive) potential of a lithium-ion battery is obvious.

This out of control farce has been happening in Australia for months. Retailers are displaying the illegal products openly in many shops having calculated that the chances of prosecution are beyond miniscule. My mail is that there is yet another classic duck-shoving exercise in federal/state responsibilities underway on this. All state and territory health departments are pointing their fingers at the commonwealth government for shelving the decision to ban personal importation of NVPs and urging that the ban be reinstated. The Commonwealth washes its hands, responding that it is a state government responsibility to police retailing breaches, not theirs.

While no recent survey data are available, it seems highly likely that when they are next published that we will see what Canada, the US and New Zealand have experienced with regular vaping (not just curiosity experimentation) being repeated here.

Recent New Zealand school data on smoking and vaping

Nicotine is anything but benign. While vaping cultists glibly proclaim that every kid who started vaping and then took up smoking would have taken up smoking up regardless, recent research shows kids who vape are over four times as likely to smoke than non-vapers. And vaping is increasingly being revealed as anything but a revolutionary improvement in how to quit smoking (see here and here).

Australia has an exemplary track record in reducing the number of children who smoke (see chart). These data are draining the life blood out of the tobacco industry with ever-diminishing cohorts of would-be smokers failing to take it up. The tobacco industry’s acolytes in the Australian parliament who are now threatening this massive public health success story need to be urgently stopped.

The NVP import ban should be reinstated quickly. The original $250,000 fines should remain as a serious deterrent to those profiting from this political public health vandalism.


Postscript (3 May 2021): The Deputy Secretary of the Australian Department of Health and head of the Health Product Regulation Group Adjunct Professor John Skerritt has replied to this blog here. I will comment on his letter at a later date