Tobacco Widely Sold but Vape-Nicotine Sales Remain Illegal

In what’s becoming a more and more absurd crusade for our own health and well-being, the gatekeepers of all psychoactive products (except those backed by well established industries), the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) have decided that nicotine for use in a vaporiser will remain illegal. The only caveat to this prohibition is the ability to import nicotine from overseas for use as a smoking cessation product, once one has a prescription from their doctor (for most states and territories).

The policies and regulations that exist around psychoactive products like nicotine are a confusing and contradictory mish-mash, reflecting consumer desire, industry influence and the more recent public health paternalism.

We have one of the most heavily regulated tobacco markets in the world. Plain packaging, health warnings, advertising bans, display bans, use restrictions and heavy taxation have all been implemented over the decades, in an effort to cut the number of smokers in Australia. As you are no doubt quite aware, smoking tobacco comes with a number of health risks and the likely potential of addiction.

Once upon a time, tobacco companies actively conspired to hide the link between smoking and disease. One particularly well known case in the 1970’s was Operation Berkshire, where seven of the world’s major tobacco companies aimed to promote a controversy between smoking and disease. These actions have seeded significant mistrust of tobacco companies. The tobacco companies forgot that the truth always prevails and that the mistrust they seeded would haunt them for decades to come.

Now we live in an age of public health paternalism. Statistics on our health coupled with behavioural economics and psychology have created an illusion that there is a correct set of levers which can be pulled to fix all that ails humanity. All illusions are manifested through elements of truth and the truth is that we live in a far healthier age because of our experts in healthcare. There’s no denying that many policies implemented to reduce the harms of tobacco have done so. But there is a line. We’re not sure where that line is, but the basic idea is that even when people have the best information available, they may still choose to do something (like smoke) because they like it.

We can all attest to the fact that there are many factors that go in to our decision making process and the health risks are only one part.

Across Australia governments have regulated vaporisers (without nicotine) in a way similar to tobacco products. These devices are being regulated alongside tobacco, despite significant differences in the products including the ability to access the main psychoactive component of tobacco, nicotine. Australian journalist Joe Hildebrand recently wrote an opinion piece for news.com.au noting a piece of the consumer decision puzzle that is lost on those aiming for zero smokers.

“Dammit,” I muttered through a cloud of smoke one night. “They can put a man on the moon but they can’t invent a cigarette that doesn’t kill you.”  And that’s when I realised: They had.

People who use a vaporiser for nicotine delivery may be trying to reduce their health risks, while accepting that their choice will still have risks associated with it. This is why vaporisers shouldn’t be regulated as therapeutic product by the TGA and shouldn’t be considered as Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), a specific set of products designed as health products to aid people in smoking cessation. These products are designed to compete on the market against tobacco products by providing an alternative that still has many of the aspects of smoking people enjoy, while removing aspects which have become technologically inferior. This appeals to many people and the appeal is what makes vaporisers a potentially powerful tool in reducing the overall health consequences associated with smoking.

Nicotine for use in a vaporiser is still illegal for sale in all of Australia. Tobacco is sold at nearly every corner store, petrol station, supermarket, liquor store, club, pub… you get the idea. Many Eros members now sell vaporisers but must adhere to their local regulations, which can be quite restrictive in terms of displaying product. A small number of vaporiser-specific stores exist around Australia but they too must adhere to strict local regulations. Many Australians choose instead to jump on the web to purchase vaporisers and (illegal) nicotine fluid, often from companies overseas. While our public health paternalists struggle to come to terms with the fact that their professional opinions, no matter how well informed, are only one part of our decision making process, Australians are breaking a largely unenforced law to send money overseas to access products they want, in order to reduce or replace their consumption of a product they can legally buy just about everywhere in Australia.

And that’s the result of this absurd crusade. So far.

Check out Nicotine Policy and the New Nicotine Alliance to keep up to date.