Vapes to be sold behind the counter under watered-down ban

Australians will be able to buy plain-packaged nicotine vapes from pharmacies without a prescription from October after the Albanese government walked back its world-leading plan to outlaw all e-cigarette sales without a doctor’s prescription.

Health Minister Mark Butler on Monday struck a deal with the Greens to water down a proposed vape ban so that his legislation,which will introduce tough penalties for unlicensed shops selling illegal vapes,can pass the Senate. The original hardline proposal that would have required a GP script did not have the clear support of the Greens or Coalition.

Health Minister Mark Butler during a press conference on vaping restrictions earlier this year.

Health Minister Mark Butler during a press conference on vaping restrictions earlier this year.Alex Ellinghausen

The changes are a significant concession from Butler,who has invested political capital in the success of theworld-first prescription-only model as he warned vapes are a cynical ploy from Big Tobacco to hook a new generation on nicotine.

While the health minister on Monday said he had engaged constructively with the crossbench,the Coalition labelled Butler’s amendments a “backdown”.

The last-minute changes have also provoked the fury of pharmacists,who said they were healthcare professionals and not tobacconists as they came out swinging against the new bill on Monday night.

“The Senate’s expectation that community pharmacies become vape retailers and vape garbage collectors is insulting,” a Pharmacy Guild spokesperson said.

“Everyone wants to keep illegal vapes out of the hands of kids and teenagers,but the Senate wants pharmacists to stock vapes next to children’s Panadol,cold and flu medicine and emergency contraception.

“The Senate is about to make a bad decision. We urge the Senate to change course.”

On Monday afternoon,Butler said the new laws would ensure vapes were used as they were marketed upon their creation:as an alternative for smokers,rather than a hobby for children.

“These laws protect young Australians and the broader community from the harms of recreational vaping,” he said.

“From Monday next week,it will be unlawful to supply,manufacture,import and sell a vape outside of a pharmacy setting.”

Vapes on display at a store in Melbourne in 2023.

Vapes on display at a store in Melbourne in 2023.Joe Armao

The Coalition has not revealed its position on the amended legislation but the Greens will support the changes,meaning the laws should pass the Senate this week unless the Pharmacy Guild,one of Canberra’s most influential lobby groups,manages to alter the outcome.

The changes,which the Greens pushed,will make nicotine vapes a “pharmacist only” product governed in the same way as other behind-the-counter drugs – a downgrade from their “prescription only” status in Butler’s original plan.

People will first have to talk to a pharmacist,who will give them information on health harms and alternatives for quitting smoking. They must also show their ID to prove they are over 18.

There will be limitations on the nicotine content,and vapes will only be available in menthol,mint or tobacco flavour. Under-18s will still be unable to access the vapes without a script.

Butler had previously raised the idea of people buying vapes from a pharmacy without a prescription,but suggested that would be considered if the prescription-only model was not working.

The Pharmacy Guild strongly opposes the idea,particularly because no vaping products have yet been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and pharmacists would have to navigate the complex logistics of stocking unapproved products.

But Greens health spokesman Jordon Steele-John had raised concerns about the difficulty and expense of seeing a GP for people who wanted to quit smoking and needed to obtain a script.

Health Department analysis of Butler’s original plan assumed the vaping policy would require almost1 million GP visits as 450,000 Australians were expected to seek prescriptions for vapes each year.

After securing the concessions on Monday,Steele-John said the changes meant “vapes remain out of the hands of kids,but adults can access them via a pharmacy”.

“No one should be penalised for personal use of vapes. The prohibition of drugs has failed. The Greens are pleased that we have secured amendments to this legislation that will ensure that no person will be criminalised for personal possession of a vaping product,” he said.

Nationals senator Matt Canavan,whose party has advocated for vapes to be sold like cigarettes,said the government’s shift represented a “complete reversal at high speed from the government’s failed prescription model”.

“Our pharmacists do not want to be,and should not have to be,tobacconists,” he said.

The Nationals had argued for a commercial model,backed by tobacco companies and theAustralian Association of Convenience Stores.

The association’s chief executive,Theo Foukkare,also described Monday’s changes as “a massive admission of failure by Health Minister Mark Butler on his own policy”.

“Instead of strictly regulating and taxing vaping products – the same as alcohol and tobacco – the health minister has chosen to turn community pharmacists into quasi-government endorsed-tobacconists,” he said.

Australian Medical Association president Steve Robson insisted earlier on Monday that it was important the prescription-only model be given a chance to succeed.

“I don’t think we should just lie down and give up ... Every peak public health body in this country supports the legislation[as it was before the amendments],” he said.

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Paul Sakkal is federal political correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald who previously covered Victorian politics and has won two Walkley awards.

Natassia Chrysanthos is the federal health reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age,based at Parliament House in Canberra.

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