The Nationals proposal to address skyrocketing youth vaping rates by relaxing laws to allow retailers to sell the products to adults is “a shocker,” the president of the Australian Medical Association, Steve Robson, has said, while other health experts have criticised the proposal for being aligned with big tobacco.
On Tuesday Nationals leader David Littleproud told the ABC that retailers should be allowed to dispense nicotine vaping products, but that sales should be limited to people 18 and over, and attractive packaging marketed to children should be banned.
“We have to get ahead of this because children are the ones that are the victims of this,” Littleproud said.
The sale of nicotine vaping products to children is already banned in Australia, and access to nicotine vaping products requires a prescription. But to get around this, some manufacturers are labelling their products as “nicotine-free” even when they are not.
Studies have found children can easily buy products from retailers without being asked for ID, and also get the products from their friends or online. It has led to a new generation of children being hooked on nicotine.
“The Nationals idea is a shocker,” Robson said.
He said children are already buying from retailers despite age restrictions in place.
“I don’t want to get into impugning any particular people, but we know as a general principle that where people are making money off this stuff … then it is easy to get access to it,” Robson said.
In Labor caucus on Tuesday the health minister, Mark Butler, was asked about the Nationals’ proposal to soften vaping laws. While he acknowledged that there is a major black market, he noted the Nationals’ proposal is along the same lines as reforms being sought by the tobacco industry.
“The industry has found a new way to develop a generation of nicotine addicts and we will not stand for it,” Butler said.
This is similar to laws in New Zealand, where youth vaping is rising. Despite it also being illegal for retailers in the UK to sell vapes to people aged under 18, the proportion of children aged 11 to 17 who vape there rose from 4% in 2020 to 7% in 2022.
Tobacco control expert Prof Becky Freeman said teen vaping rates are even higher in New Zealand than they are in Australia, which means relaxing laws would not stop the growing black market.
“The reason we currently have a black market here in Australia is because importers and retailers are blatantly flouting the law,” she said.
“Shutting down this illicit market, and ensuring that vaping products are only available through the prescription pathway is not prohibition, it is ensuring controlled access to unsafe, addictive products. This is a common approach to regulating dangerous products in Australia.”
Many public health experts groups including the Cancer Council, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), and the Australian Council on Smoking and Health (ACOSH) also support banning the importation of all vaping products, whether they contain nicotine or not, with only those with a prescription for nicotine vaping products able to access them through pharmacies.
This was proposed by the former health minister Greg Hunt, but was abandoned following a revolt led by the Nationals.
Terry Slevin, chief executive of the PHAA, said the National party’s “views on vaping are worse than irrelevant” as they are the only major political party in Australia that takes tobacco industry money.
“It invites the community, and any serious policymakers, to see its pronouncements on tobacco and vaping to be likely to be influenced by the industry which seeks to continue to profit from ill health and nicotine addiction,” he said.
Asked by Guardian Australia if he had met with tobacco and vaping industry representatives and lobbyists recently, Littleproud said: “We’ve met with everybody”.
And asked if he had met with leading tobacco control experts and public health experts including Freeman, Littleproud said: “There’s a doctor, I can’t remember his name, that’s made representation to us”.
“But this isn’t this isn’t about medicine,” he said. “This is about regulation.”
Littleproud was asked if big tobacco and the retailers they represent are experts in regulation, and responded: “I think they are”.
In response to allegations that tobacco companies are influencing Nationals policy and big tobacco donations are part of that influence, Littleproud said: “That’s a pure, petty political statement”.
“If they [the PHAA] don’t want to engage in a constructive way in an adult way about protecting children, then unfortunately, they’ve talked themselves out of the debate.”
He added that he was not aware of the way vaping laws in New Zealand allowing retailers to sell to people aged 18 and over had led to an increase in youth vaping rates.
“I’m not I’m not going to get caught up in what other countries do. The psychology and culture are different,” he said. “Each country is different.”
Maurice Swanson, an ACOSH member and tobacco control expert tobacco control, said the federal government “needs to urgently introduce an enforceable prohibited imports regulation to stop the flood of illegal e-cigarettes, regardless of whether they are labelled as containing nicotine”.
Like the Nationals, vaping and tobacco companies want retailers including pubs and clubs to be allowed to sell vaping products to adults.
Asked by the ABC why he did not support measures proposed by health experts, Littleproud said while he “gets the health experts ideology,” he “lives in the practical reality of the real world”.
But Simon Chapman, professor of public health with the University of Sydney, said: “The ‘real world’ that Mr Littleproud lives in also allows Australians to access restricted, prescribed drugs some 314m times a year”.
“Like nicotine vapes which are available on prescription, all these drugs are not ‘banned’, but regulated by a system that no sensible person opposes,” he said.
A major peer-reviewed study led by the Australian National University and published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday found young non-smokers who use e-cigarettes are about three times as likely to go on to smoke regular cigarettes compared with young people who do not use e-cigarettes.
Lead author of the study, Prof Emily Banks, said: “My job is to talk about the evidence, and I try not to go too hard into the politics.”
“And if you look at the latest evidence from New Zealand, among 13 to 15-year-olds, 9.6% are current daily vapers,” she said.
“That is the real world.”