Australians now need a prescription to buy a vape under new ‘world-leading’ law

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While the U.S. languishes on e-cigarette reforms, Australia on Monday introduced some of the world’s most restrictive vaping laws as part of the global effort to combat what the World Health Organization calls an “alarming” rise in youth vaping. 

Effective immediately, the reforms prohibit the supply, manufacture, import, or sale of a vape device outside a pharmacy in Australia. The ban applies to all vapes regardless of whether they contain nicotine.

Under the new regulations, Australians must also have a prescription from their general practitioner to purchase a vape. At the pharmacy, they will have a limited choice of three flavors: menthol, tobacco, and mint, and will need to engage in a discussion with the pharmacist before making a purchase. 

The concentration of nicotine in these vapes will be controlled, and their packaging will be “pharmaceutical-like,” according to the bill. The law aims to address the “scourge” of recreational vaping, Mark Butler, the health minister, said in a statement.

“It is a public health menace, particularly for children and for young people,” Butler said. About 22% of 18-to-24 year-old Australians reported using e-cigarettes or vaping devices at least once, governmental data last year showed. Yet at least 61% of these vapers in a similar age group have expressed the desire to quit, according to The Associated Press. 

The laws “will return vapes and e-cigarettes” to their intended purpose: a therapeutic remedy for smoking cessation, the health department said in the statement after the law passed. 

Why Australia’s approach is unique 

Many countries have moved recently to regulate their e-cigarette markets. As many as 121 countries or territories regulate electronic nicotine delivery systems, according to a 2023 WHO report. Of those nations, 33 have banned the sale or importation of vapes entirely, though e-cigarette black markets thrive in some of these countries, including India and Turkey. 

Australia’s prescription-based model is unique, but many of the nation’s other reforms have been replicated by its affluent peers. Australia banned disposable vapes starting Jan. 1, and the United Kingdom followed quickly, then went a step further, banning the sale of tobacco to anyone born in 2009 and after to create a “smoke-free generation.” 

In the U.S., regulations have moved much slower. The FDA has authorized only 27 tobacco– and menthol-flavored e-cigarette products and devices, largely from popular brands including NJOY and Vuse. Notably, other brands such as Juul, Lost Mary, and Elf Bar don’t make the list, and these vapes continue to be sold illegally. Chinese e-cigarette manufacturers also flout vape restrictions, making millions importing flavored disposable vapes into the American market. 

Last month, American politicians tore into top public health officials for not enforcing their own laws during a contentious hearing on youth vaping. 

“You’re failing!” Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) said during a heated exchange with Deputy Assistant Attorney General Arun Rao, representing the Justice Department. These officials, during the meeting, pledged to act quicker on enforcement. 

Loopholes and problems in the law

While Australia may be touting a “world-leading” reform for vaping restrictions, its new law comes with loopholes already in place. Under a last-minute amendment, restrictions will soon ease up slightly. Starting in October, adults over the age of 18 will no longer need a prescription, but will be required to have a “conversation” with their pharmacist before purchasing a vape over the counter. Children under the age of 18 will still need a prescription to purchase a vape.

Additionally, vapes purchased in Australia can have a nicotine concentration of no higher than 20 mg/ml, which is the limit many other nations have. In the U.S., vapes with more than twice of that nicotine content dominate the market, according to Truth Initiative, an anti-smoking nonprofit. 

A previous version of Australia’s law already required a prescription to buy vapes, which could be more widely sold—but retailers were able to skirt the law by pretending their vapes don’t contain nicotine. Young people have found it easy to obtain these vapes.

But now that it’s illegal to sell vapes outside of pharmacies, the law effectively transfers the burden of managing the nation’s e-cigarette supply from tobacco shops and retailers to pharmacists.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia, which represents the nation’s pharmacy owners, opposed the bill, arguing that they did not want to sell “highly addictive” vapes without a prescription.  

“The Senate’s expectation that community pharmacies become vape retailers and vape garbage collectors is insulting,” the guild said in a statement.

It is now up to each individual pharmacy to decide whether to sell vape products. Pharmacists will have to verify the age of the buyer, provide them with advice on smoking cessation, and ensure that they have not purchased more than one month’s supply. It is not yet clear what that supply refers to, or how it is quantified.

While illegal vape sellers could spend up to seven years in jail for violating the new provisions, the law does not criminalize possessing personal-use quantities of vapes, including illicit ones. A person can have up to nine vapes on them at a time, according to The Guardian. There will be a 12-month amnesty period, in which people with more than nine vapes can surrender or dispose of their surplus vapes.

Michael Bonning, a spokesperson for the Australian Medical Association, the nation’s top doctors’ group, said the new law would create a “seismic shift in how accessible vapes are.”

“These are world-leading reforms that doctors and all health professionals have pushed for,” Bonning told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

However, it is unclear yet how enforcement of the retail ban will work. As of Monday, several convenience stores and tobacconists continued to easily sell their flavored nicotine products, The Guardian reported.

“No ban. We keep selling,” a cashier at a convenience store in a Melbourne suburb told The Guardian

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