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Artillery Row

The vape scare down under

Australia is engaging in a baseless moral panic over vaping, and its having unintended consequences

The Health Secretary Steve Barclay is reported to be interested in learning from Australia’s experience with e-cigarette regulation. Quoted in The Times this week, he said: I met a leading Australian figure this morning in terms of some of the lessons around the vaping industry in Australia, and how we can look at what has been done there and are there any lessons that we can share with each other.” 

It is difficult for a British audience to understand quite how deranged the climate of opinion is Down Under

Britain does indeed have much to learn from Australia’s approach to vaping, in the same way as air crash investigators have much to learn from a black box. They say that every air crash makes air travel safer so long as the authorities understand what went wrong. On that basis, the world can benefit from studying the smouldering crater of Australia’s tobacco control policies.

E-cigarettes as we know them are banned in Australia. They have always been banned because the Aussies have a perverse law that outlaws the use of nicotine in anything other than tobacco and pharmaceuticals. Smokers who want to switch to e-cigarettes used to import them from abroad for their personal use, but in 2021 the government banned imports in response to a “significant increase” in their use by young people.  

That didn’t work because teenagers were not generally buying vapes by mail order. They were buying them on the extensive black market where unregulated devices are widely available. Stories abound of e-cigarettes being openly sold in convenience stores across the country. Rather than try to enforce the existing laws, the government decided this year to ban them a third time. The only legal e-cigarettes left on the market are those which do not contain nicotine, so that is what the government is going to ban. 

In the dwindling ranks of Australia’s reality-based community, doubts have been raised about whether the ‘third time lucky’ approach to prohibition will pay off. It is already illegal to sell e-cigarettes to people under 18 and most teenagers are not buying legal e-cigarettes anyway. Law-abiding adult vapers are likely to switch back to smoking and Australia will continue to be an international laughing stock.

Smokers will still have the option to obtain nicotine-containing e-cigarettes on prescription, but given the hysteria that has gripped the Australian medical establishment, many doctors will refuse to issue a prescription. A survey of Australian healthcare providers found that only 30 per cent understood that e-cigarettes could help  people stop smoking and a mere 25 per cent understood that vaping is safer than smoking. Ignorance among the general public is equally woeful.

It is difficult for a British audience to understand quite how deranged the climate of opinion is Down Under. While public health authorities in the UK have taken a sober look at the evidence and accepted that e-cigarettes are a game-changer for smoking cessation, Australia has descended in a full blown moral panic with politicians and alleged experts shamelessly lying to the public. The situation has got so bad that one doctor gave his son cigarettes to help him stop vaping.

The prevailing narrative is that Big Tobacco is ruthlessly marketing vapes to kids to create a new generation of smokers. The reality is that there is no legal e-cigarette marketing in Australia, the products being bought are not made by the tobacco industry, and the chances of a vaper who has never smoked suddenly deciding to take up a habit that is much more expensive and vastly more dangerous are remote.

Australia has the world’s highest cigarette taxes

The “gateway” theory — that e-cigarettes act as an “on ramp” to smoking — has always been baloney. E-cigarettes have been a mainstream consumer product in the UK for more than a decade and the results are in. Since 2011, vaping prevalence has risen from almost zero to 7.7 per cent of the adult population, of whom 4.9 per cent vape daily. In the same period, the smoking rate has dropped from 20 per cent to 13 per cent. Among 16-24 year olds, it has dropped from 24 per cent to 13 per cent. Among 11-15 year olds, regular smoking has dropped from 5 per cent to 1 per cent. Vaping is clearly an  “off ramp” not an ‘on ramp’. 

The contrast with Australia is stark. In addition to the ban on e-cigarettes, Australia has the world’s highest cigarette taxes, was an early adopter of plain packaging and it is difficult to smoke anywhere in public, indoors or out. And yet there has been no decline in the overall smoking rate since 2018 and the number of 14-17 year olds who smoke has risen from 2 per cent to 13 per cent. The number of Australians aged 14 to 17 who vape is 8.9 per cent, which exceeds the number of 11-17 year olds who vape in Britain (7.7 per cent, most of whom vape less than once a week). 

Some of these statistics are not directly comparable because the UK and Australia use different age groups to define ‘the youth’, but the overall picture is clear. Australia is probably the only developed country in the world where both smoking and vaping is on the rise among young people. Through a combination of incompetence and mendacity, the Australian political and public health establishment has engineered a unique situation in which the sale of two products that are substitutes for each another are on the rise and both are being largely purchased on the black market.

Australian public health academics have once again doubled down, claiming that the rise in youth smoking proves the existence of a gateway effect, despite no other country experiencing such a phenomenon. In reality, it shows what happens when you allow the black market to sell unregulated e-cigarettes to anyone and then tell vapers that they would be better off smoking. The whole thing has been a fiasco and introducing yet another ban is unlikely to improve the situation. The idea that Australia has anything to teach the UK about vaping regulation is preposterous. If ‘a leading Australian figure’ meets Steve Barclay again, they should keep their mouth shut and listen.

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