Australia’s 300,000 vapers were shocked, angry and frightened last week when the Health Minister announced a ban on importing nicotine liquid into Australia with two weeks’ notice and a penalty of AUD$220,000 per offence.
Vapers who had struggled to quit smoking for years and finally found a safer alternative faced the repulsive choice of going back to smoking or purchasing nicotine on the blackmarket. Chat groups were flooded with distressed vapers and panic buying was unprecedented. Retail shops were expected to close.
This was a potential disaster for public health. I saw 15 vapers the next day. Thirteen said they would revert to smoking if they could not get nicotine. Some would try to quit and the rest would seek nicotine on the blackmarket.
Australia has long been the only western democracy to ban the sale and use of nicotine for vaping. Importation for personal use has been allowed if the user has a doctor’s prescription. However, prescriptions are very hard to get and vapers have been illegally, but safely, importing personal supplies for years.
The new regulations proposed a complex pathway for legal importing, requiring 2 visits to the doctor, an online application to the Medicines Regulator, waiting for approval and importation by a medical supply company. The process was convoluted, costly and unworkable. Essentially, it was a de facto ban.
There was special anger about the underhand way the regulations were introduced in the middle of a pandemic. The Health Minister had commissioned a scientific inquiry into vaping in 2019, at a cost of $750,000, due to report later this year. Yet the announcement was carefully timed just after parliament rose for 6 weeks. There was no opportunity for parliamentary debate or community consultation.
The silver lining in this announcement is that it has galvanised the vaping community. Previously complacent vapers were now angry.
A coalition was formed by the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association, Legalise Vaping Australia, the Progressive Public Health Alliance and the industry association ARVIA to challenge the ban in a coordinated fashion. Within days a campaign was underway.
Vapers rang their local members of Parliament and “melted the phone lines”. A social media campaign swung into action with videos of personal stories with the hashtag #vapingsaved me.
A fighting fund was established. Advocates flooded the media via radio, television and online outlets and opinion pieces, for example, eg here and here.
A key turning point was when two government MPs set up a public petition opposing their own party’s policy. It collected an unprecedented 72,000 signatures in favour of vaping in a day and a half.
Soon after that, 28 government MPs wrote a letter to the Health Minister condemning the restrictions and asking him to reconsider the decision.
To his credit, the Minister listened and within a week had postponed the regulations for another 6 months to allow for further planning.
This turnaround was a big win for the vaping community. Vapers are now mobilised and fortified by this result and are gearing up for the next battle. However, the Health Minister remains defiant and the war is far from over.