Nicotine-loaded e-liquids must be removed from Schedule 7 of the Australian Poisons Standard in order to legalize their commercial trade and sale. This needs to be done for both pragmatic and moral reasons, in providing legal alternatives in reducing the harm of tobacco.
Australian smoking rates remain unacceptably high, despite widespread awareness of the negative health consequences incurred by smoking, the implementation of plain packaging, and increasingly high tobacco taxes. In order to continue to put downward pressure on smoking, it is essential that practical harm reduction strategies continue to be implemented.
Encouraging smokers of combustible tobacco to switch to nicotine-bearing e-cigarettes is one of the most effective ways to reduce smoking rates. Already available in the USA, U.K., continental Europe, and elsewhere, nicotine-bearing e-cigarettes have been widely recognized by independent and government health authorities as a viable harm reduction tool — estimated to be 95 percent less harmful than cigarettes — and an effective smoking cessation aid. Legalization has not been associated with an increased uptake amongst previous non-smokers.
Under Australia’s current regulations, the legal sale of the nicotine e-liquids used in vaping is limited to ‘therapeutic purposes,’ under Schedule 4 of the Australian Poisons Standard despite its non-pharmaceutical status. Dilute nicotine solutions are also listed in Schedule 7, which bans their sale in all states and territories, treating these solutions in the same manner as currently illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroin. These classifications have persisted despite the sale of traditional smoking tobacco and cigarettes remaining legal in all Australian jurisdictions, even though they are far more dangerous and harmful nicotine products.
Rescheduling is important in order to allow convenient access to nicotine-based e-liquids for current smokers. The most successful strategy will make the liquids available in the same stores as combustible tobacco and cigarettes. Without a change, e-cigarettes are unlikely to make a series dent in Australian smoking rates, as even those holding prescriptions for ‘therapeutic’ nicotine are less likely to renew their prescriptions due to inconvenience, under the current classification.
The benefits of rescheduling e-cigarettes
As a long term advocate against ineffective, coercive public regulation models, the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance is publishing its own report showcasing the benefits this reform has had in countries outside Australia, and why Australia must catch up with mainstream consensus amongst public health authorities worldwide.
Below are two key arguments in favour of legalizing nicotine-bearing e-liquids in Australia.
i. The Harm Reduction Case
Experts have recognised the value of e-cigarettes as a harm reduction tool, and a smoking cessation device that provides a path away from harmful tobacco smoking. Although e-cigarettes can be used without nicotine, their value as a smoking cessation tool is greatly enhanced when the e-liquid contains nicotine.
Nicotine is the main addictive component in tobacco, but nicotine itself is non-carcinogenic, and not a major cause of smoking related harms. It poses no significant long-term health risks when used in concentrations appropriate or commonly favoured by vapers, and there are no reports of significant health risks from use of nicotine as a smoking cessation tool in the form of patches, gums or other currently legal means. According to the U.K.’s Royal society for Public Health, nicotine is “no more harmful to health than caffeine.”
Because the use of e-cigarettes (colloquially known as ‘vaping’) does not involve the inhalation of smoke, it is a far safer alternative to traditional smoking. As a 2015 Public Health England report found, e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer for both active and passive smokers than cigarette smoke from tobacco combustion. E-cigarettes are also a proven smoking cessation device, with over 6 million adults in the European Union already having successfully quit smoking through the use of nicotine-loaded e-cigarettes.
For these reasons, a coalition of 13 independent peak advisory bodies in the U.K. has recommended that cigarette smokers be encouraged to switch to vaping as a means of quitting smoking. Unfortunately, their Australian counterparts continue to maintain an anti-vaping stance.
Concerns have been raised that e-cigarettes could act as a gateway to smoking, but this concern is countered by available evidence from countries where e-cigarettes are legal, which indicates that most ‘vapers’ are not previous non-smokers. A 2014 US study from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that despite the prevalence of e-cigarettes in that country, it was highly unlikely that anyone who was a non-smoker of regular cigarettes had taken up e-cigarettes. It also found that of the small number who had smoked only e-cigarettes, the frequency of use was 1-2 days a week on average.
No studies on the long-term health impacts of nicotine vaping exist. However, given the significant and well documented harm caused by traditional smoking, and the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as a harm reduction and smoking cessation tool, it is clear that the sale of safe quantities of nicotine-loaded e-liquids should be legalized in Australia.
ii. Negating the black market
In 2015, 30% of current Australian smokers frequently or occasionally used e-cigarettes, but evidence suggests this number would be significantly higher if not for current legal restrictions on the sale of nicotine-laden e-liquids.
The same survey found that, of the Australian smokers surveyed:
- 75% agreed that e-cigarettes were a ‘positive alternative’ to tobacco smoking.
- 65% affirmed that they would consider switching to vaping if e-liquids were legal, met quality/safety standards and were conveniently available.
- 82% agreed that “It would be wrong for the government to prevent or delay the introduction of less harmful alternatives to regular cigarettes for adult smokers.”
Clearly there is a high level of support for legalizing e-cigarettes among the group most likely to use them. This adds to their harm reduction potential, but it also hints at the dangers of retaining the current legal regime.
It is also likely that the possible legalization of nicotine-laden e-liquids in New Zealand could result in the widespread illicit import of these liquids into Australia should regulations remain unchanged.
There is already a thriving black and grey market for e-liquids and e-cigarettes that contain nicotine. Purchases can be made from many high quality web sites, with prices in multiple currencies, secure payments systems, reputable couriers and paperwork and certification. Yet quality, ingredients and safety is often uncertain.
This creates unnecessary risks for people using e-cigarettes. It makes it impossible for governments and health authorities to effectively regulate the products, deprives governments of potential tax revenue, and provides increased opportunities for criminal entities willing to float the law. These problems will only increase if New Zealand moves ahead with plans to legalize e-cigarettes.
It would be far better to reschedule nicotine-laden e-liquids and legalize the sale of these products under a well-designed regulatory system that minimizes negative impacts and externalities.
It is a preferable alternative to keeping them illegal for both moral and pragmatic reasons.