In 1992, I spoke at what was then the largest conference ever held in Africa on tobacco control. Delegates from 16 nations met in  Harare, Zimbabwe to discuss policies that could reduce tobacco use across the continent.

Zimbabwe’s health minister Dr Timothy Stamps’ talk was met with incredulity when he  commented that Zimbabwe’s huge export earnings from tobacco leaf was not inconsistent with the country’s own efforts to reduce smoking among its own people. Local lung cancer was bad, but OK elsewhere seemed to be the message.

I was reminded of this when reading official Chinese government communiques on its current internal efforts to reduce the appeal of vaping for Chinese citizens and its policies about controlling exports from Chinese vaping manufacturers to nations which have banned or strictly controlled vapes. Unlike Zimbabwe in the early ‘90s, China’s internal and export policies are consistent.

First, some context.

The major source of the tsunami of illegal nicotine vapes flooding Australia is China. The flood is dominated by cheap disposable vapes, hugely attractive to children. They are priced to make them highly accessible to anyone on a low income, including kids. With illegal importers able to buy single vapes providing up to 7000 puffs  in bulk amounts for as low as $1, and on-sell them for $15-30, massive profits can be made. They are mostly brought in by importers willing to buy in large volumes for wholesaling to retailers. But retailers, groups of vapers or individuals are also bringing them in.

Unless an order is placed with a doctor’s prescription, importation of nicotine vapes has been  illegal since October 1, 2021. Bulk imports, even if ordered with a prescription, are clearly illegal. Entering “importing vapes China” shows many ways of doing it.

Those openly importing and selling these illegal vapes reason that the probability of being caught whether via Border Security intercepts or when retailing them online or in any sort of retail outlet is vanishingly small. Many shops advertise on their front windows that they sell vapes and many openly display them on charts showing brands, flavours and puff volumes, with the actual vapes generally stored out of sight.

Data show that in the 11 quarters from Jan 1, 2020 to Sept 30, 2022 NSW Health seized 220,322 vapes after inspecting retail outlets and completed just 25 successful prosecutions. Fifty two percent of all illegal vapes seized were removed in the three quarters since Jan 1, 2022.

Health minister Mark Butler foreshadowed at a Parliament House press conference on Nov 30, 2022 that active consideration is being given to restoring and strengthening his predecessor Greg Hunt’s addition of vapes to the prohibited import list. States will need to lift fines for selling from the derisory maximum of $1600 (in NSW for example) to seriously deterrent amounts in the ballpark of those being handed out by the Therapeutic Goods Administration to those found advertising illegal vapes.

A letter signed by 28 LNP backbenchers opposing Hunt’s plan  scuppered it in the party room. The initiative was led by the coal lobby’s favourite senator Matt Canavan and signatories included luminaries like Hollie Hughes (“[British America Tobacco] They’re a cigarette company. They don’t define themselves as Big Tobacco. They’re a cigarette company and a tobacco company.”), Tim Wilson. Eric Abetz, George Christensen, Alex Antic, Andrew Laming, Bridget McKenzie, James Paterson, Gerrard Rennick, Amanda Stoker, Dave Sharma and Barnaby Joyce.

Many of the 28 are no longer in parliament. And those who are, are political eunuchs unable to block any bill or gut any policy that has support of the Labor government, the Greens and progressive independents, so hopes are high that Labor will continue its historic leadership in tobacco control.

Chinese government policy

In 2021 and 2022 the Chinese government began publishing  details about its emerging policies on vapes. From May 1 ,2022 China’s Tobacco Monopoly Administration prohibited the sale of “flavored e-cigarettes, other than tobacco flavors, and e-cigarettes to which users can add their own atomized substances.”

When it comes to exporting vapes from China, National Law Review summarises it this way:

“China’s Management  Rules for e-cigarettes require that e-cigarette solely for export must comply with the regulations of the destination country; when there is no relevant regulations and standards in the destination country, the product must comply with China’s regulations and standards”.

These local standards are set out here. Here is a site where you can see the names of all vape manufacturing companies operating in China with a government license and therefore subject to the regulations described. Warning 31 pages of them!

So how seriously will China actively police its rules?

I’ve been in China many times in the past 15 years working with colleagues in government and major universities like Fudan and Zhejiang. My scepticism that there might be gaps between what China says it’s doing evaporated fast when seeing how smoking bans on Chinese taxis, bused and trains were very strictly observed. I used the Beijing underground railway many times and saw teeming  millions pf people use it across weeks, but never once saw anyone smoking. This article describes China’s record in tobacco control.

Australian government officials in the health, trade and foreign affairs portfolios should clearly communicate the current illegal status of nicotine vapes in Australia to their Chinese counterparts, noting the positive developments in Chinese law. 

Lijiang, Yunnan province