SYDNEY, Australia – It’s approaching 6PM and the sun has just set on another weekday in Sydney’s inner west. A black car pulls into a quiet suburban street and parks at the roadside. Minutes later, a girl in her late teens appears. She walks to the car and waits as the window rolls down.
“That’s just 25,” says the driver, placing a small box in her hand while accepting her money. And with that, another illegal nicotine vape is sold in Sydney.
Until recently, the driver – an 18-year-old, part-time drug dealer – would have been selling marijuana from the front seat of his car. It was earlier this year that he decided to pivot to e-cigarettes instead. His name has been changed for his protection.
“I started seeing a lot of people selling vapes and I thought to look into it. Then I realised that the profits are almost double,” James told VICE World News.
It’s been illegal to sell vapes containing nicotine in Australia for years, and illegal to carry or use them without a prescription in all states and territories except South Australia. In no other Western country do such rules apply, making Australian vape laws some of the strictest in the world. Until today though, people had been able to exploit a loophole in the legislation that allowed them to import e-cigarettes and cartridges from overseas for non-therapeutic use – a legal grey area that helped facilitate the rise of a lucrative underground vape dealing market.
James, who is still in high school, estimates that he makes between $1000 and $2000 AUD ($720 to $1,440 USD) a month selling e-cigarettes. His operation typically starts by searching for a cheap supplier on a website that facilitates trade between worldwide buyers and Chinese suppliers for a variety of products. From there, communication is carried out on WhatsApp, where he and the vendor agree on an order price.
The main thing that attracted James to vape selling in the first place was the price per unit when placing large scale orders. Order upwards of a thousand individual nicotine vapes, for example, and the price comes down to just $5 a piece. James then sells them for $25 each – a lucrative markup that constitutes a 500 percent return on investment.
The extent of this black market is difficult to quantify. James told VICE World News he’s aware of other dealers throughout Sydney who sell vapes, but said that most people do so on an “on-and-off” basis and not for very long. VICE World News spoke to another source who used to work as a driver for a larger scale vape dealing operation. He claimed he was averaging 15 “drops” per night.
In any case, things just became more complicated. As of October 1, 2021, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australia’s drug regulatory agency, has banned the importation of e-cigarettes containing nicotine from overseas websites without a doctor’s prescription – closing the aforementioned loophole and making it significantly more difficult for people like James to get their hands on wholesale product. Those caught importing nicotine e-liquid without a prescription will be hit with a fine of up to $222,000 AUD ($160,485 USD).
Experts are not convinced that the new laws will be effective, though. Dr Alex Wodak, the President of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, believes that rather than destroying black market sales of vapes, the tightened legislation will only further stimulate demand for illegal access to e-cigarettes.
“There’s going to be a lot of unsatisfied demand, and unsatisfied demand will mean people going back to smoking or people buying from the black market,” Wodak told VICE World News. “We know that over 95 percent [of people] at the moment use the black market, so presumably that will only get worse.”
For 22-year-old vaper Olivia Cohen, who lives in Sydney, the prospect of switching to cigarettes after the October 1 ban is a real concern.
“I like vaping because it’s a bit ‘cleaner’ than using cigarettes,” she told VICE World News. “I worry I may turn to cigarettes a bit more often for a nicotine fix [after the vape importation ban].”
If she wants to procure vapes legally, Cohen will have to get a prescription from one of a small handful of authorised doctors, which will then allow her to order them from overseas retailers. Depending on her individual circumstances, those doctors may also prescribe alternative medicines, nicotine replacement therapies and support services. If she wants to procure them illegally, she’ll have to bank on the the black market’s resilience.
Wodak noted that historically, importation bans have failed to effectively stamp out illicit drug markets. This much is clear from Australia’s latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey, which found that an estimated nine million people aged 14 and over in Australia (43 percent) had used an illicit substance at some point in their lifetime, and an estimated 3.4 million (16.4 percent) had done so in the previous 12 months.
The most frequently used substances were also three of the most popular and heavily trafficked illegal drugs: cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy, all of which are subject to more restrictive bans on importation and use than vapes. International borders are porous, and prohibitions clearly don’t dissuade importers from slipping through the cracks in order to meet high demand.
For many years there has been debate in Australia about how the government should respond to rising demand for vaping devices. Opponents of vaping argue that the bright colours and exotic flavours of vaping devices are getting a whole new generation of young people hooked on nicotine, while supporters of more relaxed vaping laws think the government should be encouraging people to trade cigarette smoking for vaping, which studies claim to be a less harmful alternative.
With the new legislation, the TGA has attempted to thread the needle between these two arguments – leaving an avenue for smokers to get a doctor’s prescription and wean themselves off cigarettes, while at the same time curbing vape use among young people. As the Administration said in a statement: “This decision balances the need to prevent adolescents and young adults from taking-up nicotine vaping products while allowing current smokers to access these products for smoking cessation with appropriate medical advice.”
The extent to which young Australians are currently vaping is also a contested issue, though. In justifying the October 1 law change, the TGA claimed that between 2015 and 2019, e-cigarette use among young people increased by 96 percent. But Wodak believes the studies that produce these statistics are deeply flawed, as they fail to differentiate between young people experimenting with vaping for short periods and regular vape usage.
A recent study funded by the World Health Organisation surveyed young people under 20 years old in 26 countries, including Australia, and found that daily use of electronic nicotine delivery systems was observed in fewer than 1 percent of national samples.
Based on the available evidence, the alarmist rhetoric concerning a teen vaping epidemic in Australia doesn’t quite stack up. Still, there are clearly enough young people experimenting with the stuff to sustain vape dealing businesses. James told VICE World News that the majority of his clientele fall within the 15 to 18 age range.
It’s difficult to tell how seriously authorities are going to police the new importation ban. Cracking down on the illegal sale of nicotine vapes has not been a high priority for police in recent years. When asked about the future of his operation, James said he’d wait to see if an easy way to get around the importation ban materialises. In the meantime, he’s invested heavily in a few large shipments of vapes that he says will get him through to the end of the year. If he can’t find a new way to access vapes after that, he’s content to cease selling them and look for new revenue streams. The future of Australia’s vape market in general, he suggested, will depend on whether or not local suppliers can access the products.
“Suppliers within Australia will need to illegally import huge amounts to resell in Australia,” he said. “This will likely create an increase in price for buyers.”