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How Australia's Ban on Nicotine Vape Spawned a Thriving Black Market

Vape juice that contains nicotine is supposedly illegal. But thanks to loopholes in legislation it's everywhere.

by Sam Nichols
23 April 2019, 6:35am

Image of vaping dude by Kdsphotos from Pixabay

Mary* is quick to list the benefits that vaping has over smoking: it’s more affordable than tobacco, it makes her feel healthier, and her hands and hair no longer smell of stale smoke: “I also prefer being able to just have a puff of a JUUL, and not have the commitment of a whole cigarette because most of the time, I don’t feel like a whole dart,” she says.

Mary started smoking as a teenager, but the 23-year-old only bought her first vape in December last year, while on holiday. Walking down the street one day in Los Angeles, Mary noticed a tobacconist advertising a JUUL starter kit for only $50 USD (roughly $70 AUD.) Having tried the notorious vape at a couple of house parties in Melbourne, Mary decided to indulge herself. But by the end of her two-month holiday she’d completely transitioned—packing a spare JUUL and five packs of the "pods" containing liquid nicotine for her trip home.

The landscape of smoking is one that’s been rapidly changing over the last two decades. Thanks to a greater consciousness of the health effects, nicotine alternatives such as E-cigarettes have begun to replace tobacco, especially with younger smokers like Mary. A survey published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that in 2016 10.8 million adult Americans had begun using E-cigarettes, over 50 percent of whom were younger than 35. And with the recent introduction of E-cigarettes like JUUL—whose sleekness, pop culture status and high nicotine content have allowed for a 641 percent increase in sales within one year alongside higher monthly sales than British American Tobacco—this shift is likely to continue.

In Australia it’s estimated that 239,000 people are using E-cigarettes, 178,000 of whom are vaping more than once a month. What makes these statistics curious, though, is that nicotine-containing E-cigarettes are actually illegal to buy, sell, or possess in Australia—a reality that Mary had no idea about. “[I] didn’t really think about the fact they were illegal, I just assumed they didn’t sell them in Australia. But I did hide them throughout my bag so there was definitely a thought of nervousness there, but I wasn’t stopped [at customs],” she admits to VICE.

From speaking with Mary, as well as others both off and on the record, E-cigarettes—especially JUULs—are becoming incredibly common, typically bought as novelties and gifts on trips to the US; or, like in Mary’s case, as an alternative to cigarettes. This makes sense, considering the prices of tobacco in Australia and the low success rate of quittingeven with medication—and in turn it's helped to establish an underground E-cigarette market.

Quite often, people will bring back E-cigarettes from overseas to sell them for an inflated price. One unnamed source recalls to VICE how they saw a single JUUL sell for $170 AUD through Instagram. Other stories we were told claimed that in both Melbourne and Sydney retailers will either import liquid nicotine or create their own knockoffs to sell under the counter. But while there is an underground market, the most common way to get the product, rather anticlimactically, is to just order online from suppliers—an act that isn’t technically illegal.

The reason for the illegality isn’t because of E-cigarettes, but rather nicotine’s status as a Schedule 7 poison, making it illegal to buy or sell in Australia. Since liquid nicotine can be prescribed by a medical professional, however, it’s actually legal to import a three-month supply under the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s Personal Importation Scheme. And although being caught importing without a prescription can lead to some hefty fines and even jail time, this loophole has allowed vapers like Charlotte* access. “[Suppliers have] never asked for [a prescription], you just bloody order! Haha,” she tells VICE via email.

Charlotte, like Mary, was previously a long-term smoker after taking it up 10 years ago. Over time Charlotte began to have concerns for her health, while concurrently being unable to afford the rising cost of tobacco. After seeing a few of her friends make the switch, Charlotte decided to buy a JUUL herself—not only helping her cut down, but also placing her within a ‘JUUL community': “basically a bunch of friends and acquaintances that order their JUUL starter packs and JUUL pods together from the US and share the shipping” as she puts it.

As Charlotte continues, it’s clear that there’s a sense of camaraderie and community among vapers—“Some people carry a portable charger with multiple USB ports, so you can charge your JUUL with your new JUUL friend at the bar!”—but realistically, the prevalence of groups appears to be a result of addressing the problems of supply and demand.

Supply can be limited, according to Charlotte, in turn lending to both desperate or ingenious responses. Some people will buy pods for an inflated price from other users, for example, while others will actually crack open empty pods and refill them with liquid nicotine they’ve imported from New Zealand. There were even stories about how some are going so far as to create their own importing services to create a streamlined process. But while these little idiosyncrasies are interesting, they raise the question over whether liquid nicotine should be illegal.

E-cigarettes and their impact is something of a topical issue right now, given their short existence and how little we know of the impacts. In the United States there’s been been crackdown over the fear that JUULs and flavoured E-cigarettes are becoming too appealing for minors. But despite the crusade against E-cigarettes, others, such as the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA), view them more positively, namely for their effectiveness in smoking cessation.

“It is immoral and unscientific to ban a far safer alternative to smoking, while allowing widespread access to lethal cigarettes which kill up to two-in-three long-term users,” Dr Colin Mendelsohn, the chairman of ATHRA, tells VICE via email. “Smokers should be given the opportunity to choose the safer option. Smokers should not be placed in the position of having to break the law to avoid dying from smoking.”

Colin’s claim, although not conclusively proven, does have supporting research behind it. A 2017 paper published in the BMJ estimates that if vapes largely replaced cigarettes over a 10-year period 6.6 million lives could be saved, while further research does reflect that smokers who switched to vaping do, in fact, smoke tobacco less. And although we still don’t know the long-term impacts, people like Colin believe that E-cigarettes are a much safer alternative. “While the long-term health risks of vaping nicotine may not be clear for many years, the risks of tobacco smoking are well-known,” he tells VICE. “Although some health risks may emerge, these are likely, at worst, to be a small fraction of the risks of smoking.”

It’s important to differentiate between the words “safe” and “safer” here. Because although there may be positives, that’s not enough to ignore the potential negatives—such as how E-cigarettes could induce strokes and inflammation similar to that of tobacco. “[We] don’t have that much information. That’s the problem. And that’s one of the major risks: what we know so far doesn’t seem particularly enticing,” says Dr Luca Cucullo, the Associate Professor & Vice Chair of Research at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC).

Luca and his team at TTUHSC have been researching E-cigarettes for some time now, and although Luca isn’t against a regulation similar to tobacco, he does believe there’s a lot that needs to be discussed in this conversation around safety. How E-cigarettes could reduce long-term quitting success, for example, or potentially allow for youths to become more inclined to try traditional cigarettes and expose unknowing users to harmful substances.

If liquid nicotine is flavoured, as it often is, then there’s an increased risk the liquid could be more toxic. Given that the liquid also contains Propylene Glycol, there’s a risk that if it gets too hot then the carcinogenic chemical formaldehyde could be released. And then there’s the matter of E-cigarettes differing in their levels nicotine, how often they’re being used, and all the other detriments associated with them—collectively souring the positive potential of the devices.

While more research needs to be conducted on E-cigarettes for us to completely understand the health effects, however, the alternatives are to either quit nicotine altogether—an incredibly addictive substance—or go back to smoking a product that kills seven million people a year. They may not be perfect, but E-cigarettes' status as a lesser evil is enough for people like Charlotte to keep doing what they’re doing.

“Look, I have been a full-time smoker for like 10 years," she says. "How much worse can it be?”

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*Name has been changed at the person's request.

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