Australia’s Recreational Vape Ban Is a Huge Milestone for Public Health

Will the U.S. follow suit?

  • Australia’s Minister for Health and Aged Care recently announced the country’s plan to ban vape products in recreational settings.
  • The ban will still allow vapes a means to quit smoking traditional cigarettes, with a medical prescription.
  • Experts agree that vapes pose a dangerous threat to younger generations, whose attraction to fun flavors can easily lead to a serious nicotine addiction.

In the name of public health, Australia is planning to ban the sale of vape products in “retail settings,” the country’s Minister for Health and Aged Care said in a media release.

The ban is intended to reduce rates of vaping in Australia, especially among younger generations. Prescription vapes will still be available if they’re being used to help someone quit smoking cigarettes. 

Since October 2021, Australians have needed prescriptions to buy nicotine vapes, but the general public was still largely able to access them.

“Vaping was sold to governments and communities around the world as a therapeutic product to help long-term smokers quit,” Mark Butler, Minister for Health and Aged Care, said in the press release. “It was not sold as a recreational product—especially not one targeted to our kids but that is what it has become.”

To ensure that vaping will only be used in a prescribed manner, the government plans to increase quality standards, restrict flavors and colors, ban single-use vapes, and reduce nicotine concentrations. 

Switching from traditional cigarettes to vapes could be a step in the right direction for people who already smoke, experts say, but it’s a concern when people who didn’t smoke previously—specifically kids—become addicted to nicotine and e-cigarettes.

“Introducing youth to an inhaled product kind of feels like deja vu,” Ravi Kalhan, MD, professor of medicine and preventive medicine, and a pulmonary and critical care physician at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told Health. “The argument that it helps people quit smoking—great, well then regulate it and use it in a medical context. [Don’t] sell it in stores.”

Young woman vaping

Getty Images / whitebalance.oatt

Vaping As a Matter of Public Health

Unlike traditional cigarettes, vapes or e-cigarettes function by aerosolizing a liquid cartridge that usually contains flavoring and nicotine—the same addictive substance in regular tobacco products. Vapes can also be used to inhale other substances, like marijuana.

Vapes usually contain fewer toxic chemicals than traditional cigarettes, which is why they’re deemed safer or healthier than normal smoking. That’s why some doctors recommend them as alternatives for people who smoke.

Australia’s new ban still allows vapes as a means to quit smoking—the ban in retail stores accompanies a commitment to making it “easier to get a prescription for legitimate therapeutic use.”

The issue is that in Australia—like in the U.S.—there’s growing concern that people who’ve never smoked in the past are beginning to vape. This would make vapes an additional vehicle for nicotine addiction instead of simply remaining a less harmful alternative.

“Adults switching to these products is one thing. A young person becoming addicted right now—what’s going to happen to them in 30 or 40 years?” Panagis Galiatsatos, MD, MHS, associate professor of pulmonary medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told Health.

In a recent survey of 15- to 30-year-olds in Australia, 14% said they were current users of vape products, and 33% said they had tried vaping or had vaped in the past. The situation is equally troublesome in the U.S.—in 2020, 19.6% of high schoolers said they used e-cigarettes in the last 30 days, as did 4.7% of middle schoolers.

Adolescents may also be more likely to start using traditional cigarettes if they vape already.

And even though vaping is technically less dangerous than smoking, experts agree that it’s still not safe.

Vaping has been shown to cause acute lung injury in some kids, which researchers believe could be linked to vape aerosol causing lung inflammation. Some e-cigarettes contain heavy metals such as lead and nickel, diacetyl—a chemical linked to serious lung disease—or other cancer-causing materials. Vaping could also cause increased rates of bronchitis, asthma, or other lung issues, Dr. Galiatsatos said.

“These aren’t innocent chemicals,” he explained. “They still pose some level of toxicity to the lungs and depending on the amount you breathe in, depending on your lungs overall, you’re gonna feel those effects.”

Managing E-Cigarette Use in the U.S.

Unlike in Australia, Dr. Galiatsatos and Dr. Kalhan agree that a total retail ban on vape products in the U.S. would probably be unlikely.

The U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning about the vaping “epidemic” among youth back in 2018, and there are state laws that set age restrictions on vape products. They can range anywhere from 18 to 21 depending on the state.

Besides an outright ban, experts agree that making moves to deter kids from vaping would be an important step toward preserving public health.

In 2022, about 85% of kids who used e-cigarettes said they used flavored products. Getting rid of fun colors and flavors could be a way to discourage kids from using them.

“If the strongest rationale is that it’s a way to facilitate smoking cessation, well then, we don’t need a million flavors out there that target youth pretty clearly,” Dr. Kalhan. “That’s where that whole issue of the gateway comes in, that people start with flavored, fun stuff, and next thing you know they’re addicted to nicotine.”

As part of Australia’s ban, the government will restrict colored and flavored vapes and require “pharmaceutical-like” packaging.

The ban on vape products of course has its critics. The Australian health minister explained that “measures will also be needed to prevent young people from trading their vapes for cigarettes.” The country will allocate resources to help people quit smoking and for public health messaging about the dangers of smoking.

Despite the fact that vaping and vaping regulation is a frontier with a number of unanswered questions, experts agreed that Australia’s ban is a reminder for Americans to think about the ways that vaping hurts the health of our own public.

“These products aren’t intended for young kids,” Dr. Galiatsatos said. “We need to put in the resources to have [that] kind of educational awareness to the young kids, and to the parents and families, and teachers, as well as doing what we can to make [vape products] unappealing to the youth.”

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