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Pam Bubrzycki: War on vapes far from over

Feb 8, 2024

It has been roughly six weeks since the Australian Government’s new regulations on vapes and vaping came to pass, and it has become abundantly clear that we are in for a long fight.

It was disappointing to read yesterday’s coverage on Perth retailers continuing to sell disposable vapes (Shady retailers running on fumes, The West Australian, 7 February 2024) , but then, we always knew that laws and regulation alone would not fix this problem.

There have also been some wins. In the past six weeks Australian Border Force has reportedly seized more than 250,000 disposable vapes.

This is good news, especially given the evidence that emerged last year around just how many vapes had made their way into the hands of our teenagers and children.

The outcry from parents, educators and health authorities was hard to miss, and it entirely justified.

At the end of 2023, survey data from the Cancer Council showed almost one third (29.9%) of Australian adolescents had tried vaping.

A promising start

Despite the actions of some unscrupulous retailers, I think the most recent legislative changes from the Australian Government are commendable.

It is now illegal to import single use (disposable) vapes, regardless of whether they contain nicotine or not. Come March, the importation of all non-therapeutic vapes will be prohibited.

New permits and product standards will be required for those who wish to continue importing therapeutic vapes.

The biggest win, however, is the limiting of flavours to only mint, menthol or tobacco. Now, Strawberry Dreams and Blue Raspberry should hopefully be harder to come by.

I am not naïve. I know people have already stocked up on their favourite flavours. I know the commercial suppliers will have placed and received significant product orders ahead of the ban, and will be quietly selling them for a tidy profit. I know the black market is already flush with vapes and vape products.

But if these products are destined to become less available to adults, then they should also become significantly less available to teenagers and children – which is the whole point.

Laudable also are the growing number of awareness campaigns around vaping. I quite like Cancer Council WA’s current Clear The Air campaign.

Taking notes from previous campaigns that generated a strong ‘ick’ response from the viewer, this campaign has managed to associate vapes with cockroaches and dead bodies.

Sustained action needed

However, we must remember that this is just the start of a long journey that will require more debate, more laws, more campaigns and more advocacy.

In 1991, 24 per cent of Australians were daily smokers, and very few of these people would have batted an eyelid about smoking in front of their kids.

It took decades, multiple legislative changes and billions of dollars invested successive public awareness campaigns to tip the scales towards a new public norm where smoking is not especially welcomed and subjecting kids to second-hand smoke is abhorrent.

A lot of work, but today only around 11 per cent of Australians are daily smokers. It can be done.

The next 12 months will be a critical time. We will start to see how the laws work in practice, where the loopholes emerge (they always do), and what on-the-ground resources are needed.

Legislation and regulations will need to be updated and adjusted, public awareness will need to be stepped up and we will need to get smart about how and where we get the messages to our young people.

At the same time, we must also keep our eye on the horizon. What is coming next?

We missed the warning signs on vaping, and suddenly our kids were hooked.

The tobacco industry remains as agile as ever – they were quick to branch out into vapes and vaping, and they will be quick to find the next big tobacco product.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do know that tobacco companies are heavily investing in smokeless tobacco products, in particular oral nicotine pouches.

The fact that these small chewable pouches come in flavours such as Black Cherry and Apple Mint gives a me horrible feeling of déjà vu.


Pam Bubrzycki is the Chief Services Officer at Hope Community Services.  This opinion piece originally appeared in The West Australian newspaper on 6 February, 2024.
Hope Community Services provides mental health and alcohol and other drug support services around Western Australia.
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