The Asia Pacific region has been split in two as to how to best deal with vaping. No bigger is the contrast than between Australia and New Zealand. While the two countries are close cousins, they’re miles apart when it comes to adopting Tobacco Harm Reduction (THR) policies that work for their citizens.
Last year, New Zealand legalised and regulated vaping. Meanwhile, across the Tasman, Australia has passed regulations for nicotine to only be available via a prescription model. This not only significantly impacts the 500,000 vapers in the country but further limits access to the 2.3 million daily smokers to safer nicotine products. The human cost to this regulation may be thousands of lives over the coming decade.
It has long been illegal to sell liquid nicotine in Australia. However, many of Australia’s vapers have instead been personally importing nicotine vaping liquids via overseas websites. From October 1 2021, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is expanding its prescription-only model with customs to clampdown at the border – meaning no more importation without a doctor’s prescription.
To prescribe nicotine, Australian doctors will either need to first apply to the TGA for access to the unapproved product or provide a script for three months or less for patients intending to access nicotine vape products through the Personal Importation Scheme (PIS). So far very few have registered under the PIS, despite nicotine vaping in Australia rising from 9% in 2016 to 11% in 2019.
Director of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association and world-leading THR expert, Dr Alex Wodak AM, says it makes absolutely no sense to restrict the availability of vaping much more than deadly combustible cigarettes, which remain freely available. He notes that the decline in smoking rates has recently begun accelerating in countries supportive of vaping such as New Zealand. In contrast, Australian smoking rates have almost flat-lined since 2013, despite aggressive tobacco control policies.
Rather than accepting leading international evidence, Australia is miles behind many others in the Asia-Pacific region when it comes to acknowledging vaping’s key role in smoking cessation. The ‘Lucky Country’ is instead kowtowing to the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO, in turn, are kowtowing to the whims of their private funding sources – who are not health professionals nor scientists.
Recent research, reported around the world, has confirmed that the WHO’s anti-vaping advice is seriously poisoned. The eye-watering money trails from American billionaires, like Michael Bloomberg, and their so-called philanthropic causes have not only targeted the WHO and many governments, but universities, scientists, and researchers.
Despite safer nicotine products saving millions of lives every year, the WHO continues to deny science, condemning safer alternatives. In fact, attacking nicotine, instead of combustible and unsafe oral tobacco, is the now the WHO’s latest focus (and increasingly the TGA too). It all makes no sense until you see the money at stake.
Not only are there multi-million-dollar grants with strings attached, but Australia has the highest tobacco excise in the world. Do you think Aussie governments want to lose that? Ongoing increases have made tobacco excise the fourth largest individual tax collected by the federal government at an estimated $15 billion last financial year. However, thanks to COVID-19 for starters, Treasury forecasters are now revising those numbers down for the next couple of years. You don’t have to be a proverbial rocket scientist to see that blocking tobacco’s main rival can only help lift the tobacco excise revenue the Australian government is increasingly reliant on.
So rather than being compared to New Zealand the United Kingdom or even the United States, when it comes to THR policies, Australia is now aligned with India, Hong Kong, and Thailand. That’s despite all the worldwide scientific evidence in front of the faces of the Australian public health establishment and authorities that vaping is a very effective THR option.
For example, Australia’s Senate Inquiry into Tobacco Harm Reduction last year heard from public health experts, tobacco treatment specialists, and frontline health workers. They told the inquiry that a prescription-only model would never work and only drive vapers back to smoking. In the end, their evidence and experiences were completely ignored.
International evidence also discredits Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt’s claims that the ban will seek “to avoid an onramp for non-smokers, especially youth”. The complete opposite happens. Vaping is no gateway to youth smoking, but a leading offramp for adult smokers.
It’s humiliating to Australian ex-smokers and those desperate to quit that they will need to seek a medical opinion and doctor’s prescription to access significantly less harmful nicotine vaping products. It makes no sense to ban products that are 95% less harmful than cigarettes, when Australian smokers can buy a pack of cigarettes from any service station or supermarket on a whim. The October move will only expand the already huge black market for nicotine vape liquids.
Vaping has been critical to New Zealand’s overall smoking rate falling to a record low 12%. The country’s District Health Boards and Māori health vape-to-quit programmes continue to achieve amazing results. More importantly, the New Zealand government listened to the evidence and organisations at the ‘coalface’ of smoking cessation. Māori and Pasifika were closely consulted on what works for them, which in turn can only help the country achieve its decade-long smoke-free national ambition.
To conclude how did two countries so close– both geographically and sociologically – drift so far apart when it comes to implementing the best policies to reduce their respective smoking-related illness and death rates? Australia has sadly fallen into the hands of greed and allowed American billionaires to dictate its health policy – in the interest of money for programmes as well as the fear of losing funding for research. Ultimately, that is what’s at play here: Money over health, money over ethics. New Zealand has also endured its fair share of undue foreign interference, but the difference being it listened to its people as to which path would be the most effective.
Nancy Loucas is the Executive Coordinator of the Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates.
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