Will the ACT’s further restrictions to vaping spell the end for one of ANU’s favourite pastimes?

Late last year the ACT government announced tighter restrictions to the distribution of e-cigarette products in an effort to decrease health related harms, particularly for young Canberrans.

Most university students in Australia are familiar with vapes. We’ve all seen them passed around on a night out, used on campus, or polluting dorm rooms with their sweet, flavoured vapours. Despite the popularity of this cigarette alternative, the contents, health effects and even laws around vaping remain cloudy.

During the financial year 2020-2021, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that almost 22 percent of those aged 18-24 have used an e-cigarette or vape at some point during their lives.

Like cigarettes and alcohol, the practice of recreational vaping has come under scrutiny for its negative health effects. Debates around the cost to a taxpayer funded public health system due to smoking and vaping linked diseases are robust.

Alarming instances of EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping use associated lung injury) have been on the rise with the growing popularity of vaping products. The CDC reported almost 3000 EVALI related hospitalisations and or deaths in the United States alone as of 2020.

Recent laws passed across the ditch have reignited the Australian debate on the regulation and public health effects of nicotine. In December of last year, New Zealand legislated a ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone born in or after 2009.

The sale and possession of e-cigarettes containing nicotine is currently illegal in all Australian States and Territories for consumers without a medical prescription. In 2021, then-Health Minister Greg Hunt introduced a ban on the importation of non-prescription nicotine e-cigarettes to further crack down on illegal possession. Despite these measures, non-nicotine vaping products remain popular among recreational users while still carrying similar health risks.

Nicotine-based e-cigarettes can still be prescribed by any doctor for the purposes of smoking cessation. This means that vapes can be used as an alternative to cigarettes for those who still experience a nicotine addiction.

According to the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA) the majority of adverse health effects caused by smoking conventional cigarettes can be blamed on the burning of tobacco and tar. The chemical reactions which take place within a lit cigarette produce harmful toxins and carbon monoxide, which is inhaled into the lungs and dispersed throughout the body.

The use of an e-cigarette involves the heating and vaporisation of a liquid medium. According to ATHRA, this means that much of the toxic chemicals inhaled by a cigarette smoker are not present, either at all or in the same concentrations, as those in e-cigarette aerosol.

Hence, ATHRA recommends vaping as an alternative to cigarettes for smokers, but nonetheless argues “The bottom line is that vaping is not risk free and if you don’t smoke you shouldn’t vape.”

While vaping is the healthier alternative to smoking, for many experts, the concern is individuals who vape with no prior experience with cigarettes. According to ANU professor Emily Banks, “we need to compare how e-cigarettes compare to breathing.” and in this case, vaping is still a damaging practice.

Banks also highlighted the highly-addictive nature of vapes. Nicotine is itself a highly addictive substance, and some disposable vapes contain as much nicotine as a dozen packets of cigarettes.

Concern about vaping, and in particular young people vaping, has left governments across the country tightening restrictions including on nicotine-free vapes.

In the ACT, Territory Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith spoke about the recent ban, stating: “Reducing supply is a critical component of minimising harm. Through these legal changes, ACT Government officials will have the ability to check if e-cigarettes are being sold to minors.”

The amendment also extends the role of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to enforce vaping product restriction laws upon sole traders as well as corporations.

Dr Devin Bowles, in a statement as CEO of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Association (ATODA) ACT, said that combatting e-cigarette use in the young population is an urgent public health challenge.

“The community is up against powerful commercial interests. ATODA applauds these reforms to help prevent minors accessing e-cigarettes,” he said.

The question of why nicotine vapes should face further restrictions while more harmful conventional smoking is still available over the counter is crucial to the public health debate. At ANU, student opinions around this topic are mixed.

Some students who regularly vape stated that they think the restrictions are on the whole negative for health outcomes. They view e-cigarette vapour as a safer medium for consuming substances than smoking them. One student, who chose to remain anonymous, stated “If vapes were made legal and made subject to a similar regulated market as cigarettes, I think people who consume them would be healthier as a result”.

Students in support of the e-cigarette restrictions, however, cited a greater issue around culture and public awareness of harms. One proponent of the new laws described the sensation of vaping as similar to some of the driving forces behind poker machine and online gambling addictions. “Vapes have heaps of different attractive flavours, and they have colourful lights and sounds when you take a hit which makes them a lot more exciting” they said.

Further arguments against e-cigarettes surround the culture around vapes compared to conventional cigarettes. While smoking products come with grotesque images of disease, and there is a long and well established history of smoking’s adverse health effects, the practice of vaping does not have the same negative aura.

Yet among ANU students interviewed who engage in both smoking and vaping, there seems to be agreement that the choice of a healthier e-cigarette alternative would be highly beneficial.

Opponents of restrictions such as New Zealand’s smoking ban (and Australia’s potential to follow suit) cite issues of personal freedom and the suppressed individual choice to engage in the recreational consumption of cigarettes or vaping.

At ANUSA’s last election in September 2022, various candidates ran with a key promise to reestablish smoking spaces on ANU’s campus.

Both the Voices for ANUSA and Action! For ANUSA tickets had policies to re-introduce smoking across campus. While the two tickets are unlikely to work together, they collectively have just under a majority of votes on the SRC. Some students clearly feel there is an appetite for greater freedom to smoke at the ANU.

Among the vaping and smoking students who Woroni spoke to, there seemed to be widespread support for the accommodation of the practice, given ANU’s size and large residential campus.

The debate around smoking and vaping will likely continue well into the future. Issues of individual choice tend to be contentious in a country which likes to view itself as a champion of freedom. While balancing the liberty to recreationally vape or smoke with the cost to public health, the ACT government has chosen to stick to its guns and further restrict access to e-cigarette products. It comes amidst a changing approach to drug control and regulation, focusing on harm minimisation over criminalisation.

In the meantime, vaping will probably remain a popular poison among Canberra’s youth, as long as it’s hidden from nightclub bouncers and public health officials.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.