In July last year, Varun* started noticing a trend among his mates. People he’d never seen smoking before were suddenly walking around with clouds of vapor around their heads.
Grape, passionfruit, lychee, mango, milk tea, watermelon. There was a flavor for every taste.
Varun’s been working in a Western Sydney tobacco shop for six years and says disposable vapes aren’t just trending among his friends, they’ve been flying off his shelves for the last two and half years.
“The first time I started getting to know that it’s getting popular, is when the smoke sales just went to 20 percent, and the vape sales go to 80 percent,” he recalls.
Part of the appeal for young people, Varun says, is the variety of flavors and a low price point.
“One cigarette is 20 puffs or something and you buy a packet for $25, right? But vaping goes for 600 puffs for just $15.”
Varun tells Hack that he always asks for ID and doesn’t sell vapes to minors, but has seen parents trying to buy them for their kids.
“One couple came to our shop and bought [vapes] for themselves, but the kids with the couple [said] I also want one watermelon flavor and they were like, ‘Okay, go for it.”
“I don’t think he was over 15 years.”
What does the law say?
Obviously it’s illegal to sell disposable vapes or any kind of nicotine to kids.
In NSW, the maximum penalty for selling nicotine products to minors is $11,000 for a first offence or $55,000 for a second or subsequent offence, which is similar to other jurisdictions around the country.
Across Australia, it’s illegal for people of any age to buy or sell disposable vapes or e-liquids containing nicotine.
Carrying or using these products without a prescription is illegal in all states and territories except South Australia.
However, there’s a legal loophole which currently lets people import disposable vapes and nicotine containing e-liquids from overseas for non-therapeutic use.
From October 1 new rules kick in and anyone who wants vape juice with nicotine in it, has to have a doctor’s prescription, no matter where they are in the country.
Why the changes? Because the government wants to curb vape use among young people while giving smokers a way to quit cigarettes.
Varun knows what he’s doing is illegal, but says he’s not really worried about it.
“I don’t feel scared about selling vapes because people are buying it [and] everybody’s selling it,” he says.
“People know that they can come to any tobacconist and get it, but it’s not only the tobacconist, it’s confectionary shops, petrol pumps, it’s everywhere, including online.”
what’s the medical advice?
Several Australian health organisations such as the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Cancer Council Australia and the Australian Council on Smoking and Health say there’s growing evidence that it could be harmful to our health.
The AMA says no level of nicotine use is “safe” and the Royal Australian College of GPs argues the long-term health impacts of vaping are still unclear. There’s also some disagreement about whether vapes help people quit smoking.
“We know that when you vaporise an e-liquid, whether that’s in a disposable or a standard electronic cigarette, we do generate low levels of compounds that are toxic to humans, and should not be inhaled under any circumstances if they can be avoided,” says Dr Jody Morgan, toxicologist and associate research fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Dr Morgan also says disposable vapes are especially dangerous because of the high levels of nicotine and because it’s not always clear what ingredients are used in these products.
Under these new laws, vapes that are brought into Australia with a prescription will need to list everything that’s in them.
“So for a person who does not already smoke, vaping isn’t a good idea, you are putting things into your body that is going to potentially cause you harm and we don’t know what the long-term effects are,” she says.
But Dr. Morgan says there’s almost universal acceptance that cigarette smokers switching to vaping is a positive step.
“There is less formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and acetone in the e-cigarette than there is in a traditional tobacco cigarette.”
Health organizations are particularly concerned that e-cigarettes normalize the act of smoking and attract young people.
According to the latest national drugs survey, more than half a million Aussies vape, up from around 240,000 in 2016. And a lot of those users are minors.
The Australian Drug Foundation notes that of those aged 18-24, nearly two-in-three current smokers and one in five non-smokers have tried vapes. Around 14 percent of 12 to 17-year-olds have tried a vape, with a third of them have used one in the last month. Students who vaped most commonly say the last vape they used was from friends, siblings or parents.
Social media fuelling use
Social media has become a massive market for vape dealers and buyers.
Hack has seen Tiktok’s powerful algorithm pushing product videos out to users it thinks are interested in vaping, and from there, buyers can follow links to place their orders through websites, Instagram accounts, and Whatsapp numbers.
Hack‘s also seen videos on TikTok of half a dozen Australian sellers promoting and packaging vape orders, sometimes in discreet ways to avoid the attention of parents and authorities.
Several young Aussies, who spoke under the condition of anonymity say they either didn’t know nicotine vapes are illegal or don’t care.
“I do know that they’re illegal to purchase, however, me and my mates don’t take it very seriously because you could walk into any market and buy them over the counter,” a 24-year-old user tells Hack.
“It just doesn’t seem like they’re trying very hard not to sell them, like, how can it be that bad.”
How are the rules actually enforced?
Right now, state and territory health authorities are in charge of monitoring and enforcing the supply and advertising of ‘nicotine vaping products’ (NVPs).
Between July 2020 and June this year, NSW Health seized over 80,000 e-cigarettes and e-liquids containing nicotine or labelled as containing nicotine.
They’ve also prosecuted 22 retailers since 2015.
From October 1, when the new laws come in, Australia’s federal medicine regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration will monitor the import, supply and advertising of NVPs across the country.
In a statement, a TGA spokesperson says they’ll work closely with the Australian Border Force to detect and assess importations of NVPs and that any unlawful products may be detained and seized.
They say all personal imports will have to have a prescription by an Australian doctor attached to it and if you’re caught without one, you’ll face a penalty of up to $222,000.
And if you’re caught supplying unauthorised NVPs there are fines of up to $1,110,000 for individuals and up to $11,100,000 for corporations.
So how do you get a prescription?
The TGA says any doctor can prescribe approved nicotine e-cigarettes, but if you’re partial to a product that isn’t on that list, you’ll have to hit up one of the around 70 doctors who’re allowed to prescribe unauthorised ones.
Once you’ve got a prescription, you can get your vape products from a pharmacy or order it online. If you are ordering it online, you’ll have to send a copy of your prescription to the seller so they can attach it to your order. That way if Border Force intercepts your package, they know it’s legal.
Disposable vapes haven’t been approved as medical devices.
Firefox NVDA users – To access the following content, press ‘M’ to enter the iFrame.
Hack spoke to several vapers aged between 24 and 30 who all say they’re unlikely to get a prescription to vape.
One user says the prospective fines are enough to deter him from buying more vapes, but says he will likely go back to smoking cigarettes in social situations.
Another user says he isn’t worried about nicotine vapes being illegal, but will stop ordering them if it becomes a hassle to find them and if the prices go up.
Creating a bigger black market
Harm reduction advocate Alex Wodak says a “vigorous and dynamic” black market supplies almost all of the current vapes in Australia. He says that’s unlikely to change after October 1.
“Controls over age restrictions, quality [and] consistency vanish when there’s a black market,” Alex says.
“The government is doing everything intentionally or otherwise, to inflate and stimulate a vigorous black market in Australia.”
Alex says it would be disastrous for vapers who don’t want to engage with the black market or can’t find a prescription to go back to smoking cigarettes.
“That’s not a good thing when smoking kills up to two out of every three long-term smokers,” he says.
Dr Jody Morgan agrees and says the success of the government’s plan to give smokers a pathway to quit smoking depends on a large number of GPs actually willing to prescribe nicotine.
But she doesn’t think the laws will do much to solve the problem of disposable vape use among young people, and might actually make the market more dangerous.
Dr Morgan says people have already started to import vaping products that don’t have nicotine warning labels on them.
“We’ve seen examples of disposable electronic cigarette devices, where the packaging that is sold overseas is clearly labelled with nicotine warnings and with the concentration of nicotine on the packaging, and the version of that exact same e-cigarette that is sold in Australia does not have any of that information on it,” she says.
*Name changed for privacy