The War on Drugs Didn't Work. The War on Vapes Won't, Either.

For almost anyone paying attention, this isn't surprising.
​A vape on the street
A vape on the street

Every morning I leave my home in Sydney and walk to the train station, skipping over the forgotten carcasses of dozens of hyper-coloured, “disposable” vapes. They are littered in the gutters, in the bushes, on the street. The technicoloured reminder of addiction, battery-filled and crumpled metal, these discarded cartridges are a daily reminder that our government’s war on vaping is not working. But for almost anyone paying attention, that isn’t surprising.


In every state and every town, illegal (not doctor-prescribed) vapes are sold brazenly. In rural towns, on trendy city high streets, and underneath office blocks, a combination of service stations and general stores have added “vape seller” to their already endless inventories, right next to the whipped cream chargers. The particularly brave (or dumb) shopkeepers have taken to stickering their windows in big red letters: “VAPES”.

And I mean, obviously. 

I am not anti or pro-vape. I cannot tell you enough that I do not care what you do with your body. But the idea that an addictive thing like nicotine could easily be curtailed in Australia has a false confidence around it ever since the government propped up the price of cigarettes incrementally - until a pack of darts cost more than night out. But vapes are different. They are not getting more expensive - at least not prohibitively - and they are not getting harder to access. They are in the hands of office workers and tradies and school kids, easily, because of a period in the late 2010s where Juul Pod and its rip-offs became a meme and a “healthier option” until, well, they weren’t anymore. 

It makes sense that the government and healthcare workers and parents would see this and want to do something about it. Depressingly, it makes sense that the answer is what it has always been: we’ll illegalise our way out of it.


Nicotine vaping products were first made illegal last year. Just two weeks ago, the NSW state government proudly hoisted up “more than $1million” of illegal vapes, promising a “zero-tolerance approach” and tens of thousands of dollars worth of fines. Which is very cool and very normal, and I look forward to seeing that money get funnelled back into the community. But I don’t know, man. I just don’t see it working. The government’s continued pride in disrupting the burgeoning illegal vape industry impresses me about as much as the Australian Police excitedly celebrating massive busts of weed or coke while just about everyone with an iPhone and a semi-functioning brain can get both delivered, to their door, in a 2-hour window.

In their efforts to chill things out, America banned flavoured vapes in 2020. I don't know if you've been to the US lately - or even just been on social media - but I am confident when I say: buddy, it ain't working out. Just last month, the Australian Council on Smoking and Health recommended the sale and promotion of e-cigarettes be banned in their entirety, citing a  growing list of researched health concerns. We are certainly heading in this direction - and it’s often our first response to damaging addictions. Hopefully, though, it won’t be the only thing done.

The amount of drug and addiction specialists calling for legalisation and the end of prohibition on illicit substances is growing every day, so we don’t need to spend too much time on that. The failures of the war on drugs have been documented again, and again, and again

So why is it going to work this time?

Brad Esposito is the Head of Editorial at VICE Australia. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his newsletter.

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