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Australia's Big Step to Legalize Vaping

Australia's Big Step to Legalize Vaping

Australia - one of the only western countries where nicotine vaping is effectively still banned - has taken an important step towards legalization.

Earlier this week, Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt succumbed to pressure from members of his Liberal Party and agreed to commission a new scientific inquiry into vaping.

Vape advocates welcomed the move, suggesting that it could pave the way for the legalization of nicotine-containing e-cigarettes.

Is Vaping Illegal in Australia?

Vape law is complicated in Australia.

Nicotine-containing e-liquids are classified as a schedule 7 dangerous poison under the National Poisons Standard, so their sale is banned across the country.

Some states allow people to buy vaping devices without nicotine e-liquid, but others ban sales unless they are approved by a medical practitioner.

Queensland, a state in the north-east of the country has the strictest rules. Here, it's illegal to use e-cigarettes that contain nicotine.

Australian states New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory all have strict laws on the public use of e-cigarettes, even if they don't contain nicotine.

These policies put Australia out of step with other western countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Defending the tough laws, some health experts point to Australia's already low smoking rates and say that there is no need to legalize e-cigarettes. They argue that these products could tempt some never-smokers to try e-cigs and get addicted to nicotine.

But the smoking rate has plateaued in Australia in recent years, while it has continued to fall in other countries that have promoted the use of e-cigarettes. The smoking rate has even increased in some Australian states.

The Turning Tide

Finally, it seems like the tide is turning on e-cigarettes.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has agreed to launch an independent scientific inquiry into the future of vaping in Australia. But only after he came under mounting pressure from within his own party.

Last month, the Western Australia branch of the minister's Liberal Party called for the legalization of nicotine in vaping to help Western Australian's quit smoking.

Senior politicians in the minister's federal party have also pushed for change. Sydney MP Trent Zimmerman chaired a committee inquiry on the future of vape laws.

The committee was divided and the final report was weak and watery, but Zimmerman wrote his own report with a stark message on the potential of vaping.

"While the evidence base regarding e-cigarettes is still emerging, there are clear indications that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful to human health than smoking tobacco cigarettes. If long-term smokers who have been unable to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes switch to e-cigarettes, thousands of lives could be saved," Zimmerman wrote.

Queensland MP Andrew Laming submitted another, significantly shorter report that made the point clearer.

"Life is short and shorter for smokers. Just legalise vaping," he wrote. The two-sentence report is thought to be one of the shortest in parliamentary history.

It is now thought that at least two-thirds of MPs in the ruling Liberal Party are now in favor of legalizing nicotine vaping. This kind of pressure seems to have forced the minister's hand.

And this is significant U-turn for Greg Hunt. In 2017, the Health Minister said he would never lift the ban on e-cigarettes.

"It's not going to be happening on my watch as far as I'm concerned," he told ABC's Hack.

A spokesperson for the government said the the new scientific inquiry would be completed by the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health (NCEPH), which has not taken a public position on the use of e-cigarettes.

A similar review in the UK recently concluded that if smokers could not quit "they should switch to e-cigarettes as a considerably less harmful alternative." A similar independent scientific inquiry in Australia could lead to a softening of policies on vaping.

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