Forgive Australian vapers if they celebrate too loudly today. Following a week of public outrage, Australian health minister Greg Hunt has backed down and postponed a strict nicotine import ban that had been due to take effect on July 1. The ban was announced just a week ago, and would have essentially prevented vapers in Australia from accessing nicotine to mix e-liquid. It is now postponed until Jan. 1, 2021.
The health minister had faced growing backlash to his ban, including from members of his own party. On Thursday, 28 Members of Parliament from the ruling coalition signed a letter opposing the import ban. The angry opposition to Hunt’s plan was driven by vapers, who took to social media, and called and wrote their elected officials to complain. A petition opposing the ban, created by two MPs, received more than 52,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.
Hunt announced the delay Friday, and also promised a “streamlined” process to allow vapers to obtain nicotine by prescription. Currently, pharmacies do not carry nicotine, because of state laws that make the process onerous or impossible. That leaves vapers—even if they have a doctor’s prescription—unable to access nicotine without buying it overseas and shipping it to Australia. The ban would have prevented all imports, and left vapers without a source for legal nicotine—a Catch-22 created (apparently deliberately) by Hunt.
Sales of nicotine-containing e-liquid is illegal in Australia, where nicotine (except in cigarettes and pharmaceutical products) is classified as a poison. Vapers are allowed to import a three-month supply for personal use with a doctor’s prescription. And many vapers ignore the prescription requirement and import it illegally.
The restrictions had not been strictly enforced. But the changes announced by Hunt would have mandated cooperation between the Department of Health and the Australian Border Force to enforce the import ban. Customs officials would have been empowered to seize all shipments of nicotine—even those paid for before the ban was announced. Punishments for violating the import ban would have included fines up to more than 220,000 (Australian dollars.
Over the week since Hunt announced the July 1 ban, panicked vapers reportedly attempted to stockpile nicotine, ordering large quantities from dealers in other countries. Some Australian appliance dealers supposedly sold out of chest freezers.
Among major democratic countries, only Australia and India have banned sales of nicotine vaping products outright. Most countries regulate the sales and manufacture of vapes, and the United Kingdom even encourages their use by smokers.
With Hunt forced to back down and the outrage over his proposed prohibition fresh in the public mind, now is the time for vaping consumers and businesses to push their MPs for a sensible, permanent solution. Some are eager to make changes—even some from Hunt’s own Liberal Party.
“Six months gives us the time to put in place a system that ensures anyone who needs access to these safer alternatives can get it,” Liberal MP James Paterson told the Guardian on Friday.