Health minister Mark Butler wasn’t mincing his words. “Australia needs to reclaim its position as a world leader on tobacco control,” he said.
Which rather begs the question of how it ever lost that position – if, indeed, it has. If any country beyond the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was going to ban tobacco or nicotine products altogether, Australia might be the most likely contender.
Sales of heated tobacco, nicotine pouches and e-cigarettes are prohibited, and even importation for personal use is only permitted when all parties involved are prepared to engage with straight faces in the pretence that the purpose is medical.
Now, however, Australia is set to crack down even further on vaping. Declaring that it is “creating a whole new generation of nicotine dependency”, Butler has announced his intention to ban the importing of nicotine-free e-cigs too, making them available only with a prescription. The logic of this is not immediately apparent.
More understandable, perhaps, are his stated aims of raising e-cig quality standards by restricting flavours, colours and other ingredients; reducing the allowed nicotine concentrations and volumes; and banning single-use disposables.
An insistence on “pharmaceutical-like packaging” makes sense, too, in the context of a prescription-only regime, and in tandem with a plan to make prescribing e-cigs for adult smoking cessation easier. (Whether this will actually come to pass, and importantly whether doctors will in practice go along with it, remains to be seen.)
Nicotine / not nicotine – who can tell the difference?
It would also be consistent with Australia’s place in history as the first country to enforce uniform drab packaging for cigarettes, a requirement first laid down in 2012 and copied in a number of other countries since. Especially if, like Butler, you see no clear distinction between “tobacco control” and control of novel nicotine products.
Of course, he’s far from alone in that failure to distinguish one form of nicotine product from another (or, as it would seem, nicotine from not-nicotine).
Heads will have been nodding in many places too when he said: “Vaping was sold to governments and communities around the world as a therapeutic product to help long-term smokers quit. It was not sold as a recreational product – especially not one targeted to our kids – but that is what it has become.”
And though this new policy specifically addresses e-cigarettes, rather than other novel products, the mere fact that Australia’s government is devoting energy to tightening further, relatively small screws on an already very locked-down e-cigarette market suggests that the chances of the country welcoming other novel products are slim to negligible.
Meanwhile, you can’t import combustibles either, but you don’t need to; unlike reduced-risk products, they’re available in stores.
– Barnaby Page and Aidan Semmens TobaccoIntelligence staff