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Australia intensified its war on vaping with new, punitive regulations that will criminalize nicotine vaping products to an extent unseen in the Western world. The government explicitly states that its goal is to 'reverse the increasing uptake of recreational nicotine.


Fiona Patten
Former Member, Parliament of Victoria, Australia
Chair, Australian Consumers’ Association
Harm Reduction, Vaping Activist


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Brent Stafford: Hi, I'm Brent Stafford and welcome to another edition of RegWatch on GFN.TV. Australians were once renowned for their ability to meet the challenges of harsh environments, such as the rugged outback or extreme weather like bushfires and floods. They embodied the image of resilience and brought a no-nonsense approach to life. But this celebrated picture is now over. Faced with a moral panic over teen vaping, the once hardy people of Australia have eschewed sensible regulations that balance public health concerns with personal freedom and the pursuit of harm reduction. Instead, they've implemented some of the harshest and most arcane restrictions on nicotine vaping products anywhere in the world. Joining us today to talk through Australia's stringent vaping regulations and their impact is Fiona Patten, harm reduction activist and former member of the Parliament of Victoria in Australia. Fiona, it's great to see you again and thanks for coming back on the show.

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Fiona Patten: Yeah, likewise Brent, great to see you too.

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Brent Stafford: Fiona, the Labor-led Australian government is a step closer to implementing a new round of nicotine vaping restrictions that ban the importation, domestic manufacture, supply, commercial possession, and advertisement of vaping goods in the country. The government introduced the legislation in March, and in early May, the Senate committee charged with reviewing the amendments voted to approve the reforms. As of this show taping, we don't know if the full Senate will pass the legislation, but it sure looks likely. Fiona, what do you think of these new measures?

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Fiona Patten: Well, I mean, without using four-letter words, and I will try throughout this not to, but they are awful, they are ridiculous, they are impossible to police, and like any form of prohibition on a popular product, they will fail. On top of that you know most of this legislation is a prohibition on a prohibition. We've already banned the use and sale of vapes without a prescription in Australia. I mean frankly i think out of the 1.6 million people who vape in Australia, one person has been prosecuted for this. so it shows that there's a failure in the legislation already and these these new proposed laws will just make that worse frankly.

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Brent Stafford: So the senate report that was released recently was like 126 pages, I mean did they do justice to this issue?

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Fiona Patten: Not at all. And when you look at the nearly 300 submissions that that committee received for that inquiry, predominantly from people who vape, who were telling the politicians on that committee their personal stories about how vaping has effectively saved their lives. Certainly improved their health, enabled them to sort of reconnect with their families in a very different way because they're feeling healthier and better. So no, it did not do justice. And it really just brought out the same old tranches of misinformation that we have all heard before. They did listen to some of our experts, certainly like Dr. Colin Mendelsohn, and I know he's a regular on your program, Brent, to people like him. But at the end, they dismissed the expert evidence of the likes of Dr. Colin Mendelsohn. And what they also did not do is they did not seek out the evidence of similar countries like New Zealand, like the UK, where they could talk about some of the alternatives to prohibition. And certainly for our sisters in New Zealand to show how a regulatory approach, while maybe not perfect, is a damn sight better than what is being proposed in Australia.

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Brent Stafford: Now, Australia is not the only country that displays this walled garden kind of an aspect. Well, if the research is not done, you know, internally, we're not going to use it, but they'll still import misinformation from the WHO and Bloomberg.

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Fiona Patten: Oh, it's truly frightening. And the misinformation that they are now publicly funded organisations, publicly funded health organisations are now dispelling is actually saying things like they are more dangerous than smoking. So we are seeing this dangerous misinformation being exported from certainly WHO and from Bloomberg, but now being on our televisions, being advertised at the public purse, it's quite frightening the type of misinformation that's become available. But it's also the flip side of that is that people who vape are angry. They are furious at this misinformation. And to see nearly over 200 people actually take the time to write a submission to a Senate committee when they only had 10 days to do it was really heartening. And I think that there is not a politician in Australia who is not becoming aware that this will be an electoral matter.

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Brent Stafford: The Australian government, Fiona, says that one in six high school students and one in four young Australians aged between 18 to 24 are vaping. In your mind, is teen vaping a problem in Australia?

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Fiona Patten: Look, we don't want young people using illicit substances. I mean, it's illegal for a young person to use a nicotine product. So certainly we don't want young people, while their brains are still developing, using psychoactive substances like nicotine, but like alcohol, like cannabis. But they do. And for most of the research that we're seeing coming out in Australia, well, one in four young people may have vaped. They don't vape. They have tried vaping. Now, this is a very different thing compared to much higher and much more dangerous levels of binge drinking amongst that same cohort. So we never talk about the binge drinking. We don't talk about the fact that 26% of young Australians use cannabis. So far more young Australians are using cannabis than they are vaping. So they present these alarming statistics that are misinforming the general public, frightening parents, frightening schools. So everyone thinks it's a terrible thing. The other thing they're doing is saying to all the young people, hey, everyone's doing it. Why aren't you? So in this perverse way, they are probably encouraging young people to try vaping because they're telling them that they all are when they most definitely are not.

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Brent Stafford: But with this new round of restrictions, how likely is it that anybody's going to be able to get their hands on a vaping product in Australia once everything's in full force?

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Fiona Patten: You know, the sale of nicotine by a vaporizer in Australia has been illegal since 2011. Now, none of us have had any problem in buying an illegal nicotine product in Australia since 2011. Look, personally, I do buy my product. I used to buy my products from New Zealand where I could buy them from a regulated market where I could know what the product was, where I knew who the manufacturer was, and I knew it was a safer product. But even last week, I was and so after we've had, you know, the initial bans of earlier this year, we've had we've had the ban since 2011. I was in my local convenience store and they literally had an ad on the bench where you handed over your money for a 5000 puff vape. in multiple flavors. So getting your hands on a vape will not be difficult. And right now, as I say, it is illegal for someone without a prescription to vape in Australia, yet there is over a million of us doing it. And you walk down the street and you see people vaping outside. I have never seen a police officer pull those people up. So right now we know the law has failed. We know that it's unenforced. The police have far better things to do quite rightly than stop adults using an alternative nicotine product to the legal tobacco product. And so further legislation that further restricts it will of course fail.

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Brent Stafford: So Fiona, I've got a report here. According to the Australian Association of Convenience Stores, organized crime figures are importing an estimated $1 billion of illegal vapes into Australia each year. Is that going to stop with these new regulations?

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Fiona Patten: We also have some of the highest uses of heroin in the world. We have some of that certainly in Western countries. We have some of the highest uses of illicit drugs in the Western world. No, it will not stop it. And people will continue to import these products because they're profitable, because they're easy to import, because they're cheap to import, and there's a high resale value on them. And the law is not enforced. So we have seen two criminal organisations, at least two in Victoria, having turf wars over illicit tobacco and vaping. We've seen over, I think it's close to 80 shops firebombed. We've seen two people killed. And police are saying, and they're saying it publicly, we cannot enforce the laws around illicit tobacco and certainly not around vaping either. So the same organizations that are bringing in methamphetamine and heroin are now bringing in vapes. And is that the supplier that we want to have for this product

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Brent Stafford: that we want people to be using because we know that it's safer than the smoking that kills 20 000 australians every year. It's pretty dramatic fiona i've got a clip here from australia news media that shows and demonstrates the problem. Let's take a listen.

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VIdeoclip: Fire tearing through a tobacconist in melbourne's northern suburbs in the early hours of this morning. Well, that's all the stuff inside. Explosions scattered shrapnel for hundreds of metres across Craigieburn. You have a gas bottle in your backyard? Yeah, it's split open so it's a sheet of steel buried about six inches into the dirt. Police are now investigating if this fire is linked to dozens of others in Victoria, part of an ongoing conflict between organised crime and bikey gangs. A result of criminal syndicates in conflict due to competition for profit derived from the illicit tobacco market. Organised crime gangs are using illegal cigarettes, tobacco and vapes as an ATM to fund their activities like sex trafficking and drug trafficking. For months, tobacconists across Melbourne and regional Victoria have been targeted. Last night's fire in Craigieburn follows blazes in Sunshine, Altona, Croydon and Mowi just since Christmas. It's now pushing the federal government to action. It's launching a new $190 million crackdown on illegal tobacco and vapes nationwide. This will be an end-to-end crackdown to do all that we can to shut down this illegal trafficking at its source before these illegal cigarettes reach Australia's border in the first place. Trying to push them out of tobacconists, where vapes in particular are often sold to young people, and cut off a revenue stream for organised crime. The government's taken their foot off the pedal and you've allowed over the course of the last 18 months for these organised crime groups to really take hold. A public health problem taking a dangerous turn.

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Brent Stafford: So that's pretty dramatic. But that was Mark Butler. That was Mark Butler, wasn't it? The person who's brought in these regulations?

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Fiona Patten: I don't know whether he looks at himself in the mirror and wonders why this is happening, because it's happening because of the laws that he has introduced on his watch. Both of those pictures that you just showed were in my electorate of where I used to represent as a member of parliament. We have known about these turf wars for six years. I was well aware of them. I raised them in parliament at the time and nothing was done then and nothing is being done now. The police say that they just can't do it. And certainly Jason Clare and the government trying to introduce further bans on bans is not going to work. It's already prohibited for those people to sell those products. So you're now going to make it more prohibited. There's also state legislation that is not in line with this. So it's a complete disaster. I was going to say a cluster something, but it's a disaster. These people who live above those stores, who live next to those stores, someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get hurt as an innocent bystander to this. Without doubt, it is only a matter of time. But, you know, while one of those closes down, you know, it's a whack-a-mole circumstance, so you might blow up one tobacconist, there's one 100 metres down the road that's opened up. I mean, we are seeing since... It's almost since the prohibition... We have seen a proliferation of illegal vape stores opening up. Shopfront, blatant as anything,

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Brent Stafford: Yeah, it's hard to imagine how any Western government could manage to police this in any way. I mean, I'm thinking of the UK. They're going to do a disposables ban. In Canada, they're about to implement a flavor ban. We're going to have a chat about this a little bit later when we're in Poland, when we're in Warsaw for the Global Forum on Nicotine, because something is going wrong with the Commonwealth. You know, any thoughts on that?

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Fiona Patten: I think we have been hijacked by, for Australia in particular, we were so proud of ourselves and backpack around plain packaging of cigarettes, around our taxation of cigarettes. And Australia really did start to see a decline in smoking probably at a greater rate than the North America and European countries initially. We've now flattened out. We're not going anywhere and everybody else is now continuing on a decline from smoking, decrease in smoking. But we have this sort of misguided pride in our tobacco control. And I think that is actually where this is coming from. And it was a labor government that introduced plain packaging that has introduced this you know constant increase in taxation on the tobacco product, which now makes it unaffordable for the people who are most likely to smoke in this country, which are people on lower socioeconomic, from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. So it is our misguided pride in our tobacco control, I think, that does this. And I suspect that that's probably the case in other Commonwealth countries as well.

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Brent Stafford: Well, considering that tobacco control really isn't about controlling tobacco, it's about controlling people, should be called people control or pleasure control.

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Fiona Patten: And they also, you know, they put it out that the tobacco companies are the big bogeyman. And so by doing this, we're controlling the tobacco companies. And, you know, there will not be an interview where Jason Clare, the health minister, does not mention big tobacco and that this is about, you know, countering and continuing the war on big tobacco. It's completely the opposite. I mean, certainly not patrolling and not controlling illicit tobacco is to the detriment of the tobacco companies. And then perversely, one of the only products that is legally available in Australia is one produced by Philip Morris. So they've actually provided just another legal conduit for the big tobacco companies to continue to sell. Now, I don't have a particular problem with that at all, but it's, you know, on the one hand, they're saying this is about stopping big tobacco. And on the other hand, They're approving big tobacco to sell its products in our chemists under prescription.

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Brent Stafford: So about that then, if you are to stay within the legal system, are you going to have a lot of choice still at the chemist?

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Fiona Patten: No, you've got, I think there's two, you've got two choices. And from what I understand, you know, one product, when I've been speaking to friends and colleagues who've gone down that path, one product is okay and the other product is unusable and unworkable. It's awful. But to get to that point, you still have to get an appointment with a doctor that is willing to write you a prescription for a product and find a chemist that sells that product. I don't know about in other parts of the world, although I can take a pretty educated guess, it's not easy to see a GP. It's not easy to get an appointment and to find a GP that A: you can afford, B: will write you a prescription for a vape. It's very difficult. And again, when I go back to that, most of our smokers in Australia are older people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. So they are the least able to access good health care in this country. So, no, it's a failure. Even just ridiculous things like if you've got a prescription for a device, if you happen to lose that device, and I'm sure you and I have both experienced that, losing your device and the anxiety that that brings, you have to actually go back to your doctor, get a new prescription before you can get a new device.

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Brent Stafford: So when it comes to health equity, there's not so much of that anymore, right?

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Fiona Patten: No. And this is an interesting thing. This was quite mind blowing. And I'm surprised that the Minister for Health hasn't fixed this. But, you know, we have a Medicare system here and we have bulk billing. So if you don't have a lot of money, you don't pay to see a doctor, except if you're trying to get a script for nicotine. That cannot be bulk billed. So you must have $70 to see your doctor to get this script. So we're setting up every single barrier. We're making it so difficult for someone to access the product legally. So it's not surprising that so few Australians have access to the product legally.

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Brent Stafford: So obviously it sounds like in Australia, the concept of tobacco harm reduction does not apply. Why do you think that is? Does public health there not think that tobacco harm reduction is a valid application of the harm reduction principle?

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Fiona Patten: Yes, and I have to say, when I was listening to your intro, I was just cringing. You know, Australia, when I first got involved, I guess, in politics and, you know, as a younger person, it was in the time of HIV and AIDS, and we understood harm reduction. I worked on a needle exchange bus, handing out syringes to people who used intravenous drugs, handing out condoms in schools, because we understood harm reduction. We've got states in Australia which have decriminalized the use of illicit drugs because we know that if we want people to not die from the drugs, to not be harmed by them, then we can't criminalize the people for using those drugs. We get it for every other drug with the exception of tobacco, we have low alcohol beer because we understand that that is a harm reduction measure. We only sell low alcohol beer at some you know some sporting events because we understand harm reduction principles. But you are absolutely right we are completely blind to it when it comes to tobacco harm reduction. Although they're now saying that a prescription model is a model of tobacco harm reduction. But that would be like saying, OK, imagine if we'd said for intravenous drug users, of course you can use illicit drugs, but you have to get a prescription to get the needles to use them. You know, we know that would have failed and that's why we didn't do it. And now we are seeing, we are ignoring what we know in regards to tobacco harm reduction. It's embarrassing.

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Brent Stafford: Is there some kind of ends justify the means that's going on here?

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Fiona Patten: I honestly think it is this completely blinkered approach to tobacco control that has made them blind to look at alternatives. And some of the people that were involved in that tobacco control and really patted themselves on the back, back in the 80s and the 90s when we saw some pretty incredible decreases in smoking rates in Australia. So some of those people cannot be redirected. They cannot see that what they're doing is doing more harm than good. And I think for many of us, it's really disappointing. So people that we have walked alongside in drug law reform, in other forms of harm reduction, are now sitting on the opposite side of the table to us when it comes to tobacco harm reduction. The one substance that kills more Australians than any other substance combined And we will walk in unison step around supervised injecting rooms to make sure nobody overdoses from heroin. But we are at loggerheads when it comes to a safer way of people accessing nicotine. And just as an example. We have you know a number of states have been moving towards um decriminalization. We've always said that drug use should be treated as a health issue not a criminal one. And it's been a line and a slogan that we have run for decades now you have jurisdictions now in Australia that have decriminalized the use and possession of all illicit substances. So if you're found with a gram of cocaine or some methamphetamine or heroin or cannabis, you're not criminally prosecuted. In fact, you're directed to a health service, which is an excellent idea. However, that same person who has heroin in their pocket could be arrested and jailed for having a vape in their pocket. So, you know, and some of the politicians in those jurisdictions are recognising how ridiculous and hypocritical that is and are trying to say, listen, we can't prosecute people and criminalise people for possessing nicotine when we don't do it for heroin or methamphetamine Like, come on. But those politicians are unfortunately still in the minority.

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Brent Stafford: And some politicians, you shared a story with me off camera that outside of parliament, go ahead, tell us that story.

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Fiona Patten: Look, I was outside Parliament and I was vaping and I had two politicians with me smoking. Now, they were saying, oh, my God, you vape. And these were educated middle class men in their late 50s smoking. And they thought that what I was doing was somehow dangerous and perverse. And I tell you that, that they really were surprised when I tried to give them some information around vaping and that the vape I had at the time was a legal vape from New Zealand that I hadn't bought it on from a convenience store or a 7-Eleven. However, a number of parliamentary staffers all vape and there's a sense of stigma around vaping that's not there for smoking. It's quite, it's really strange, you know, and as I say, not just, you know, and certainly the smokers were saying this, but even non-smokers are like, oh my God, do you vape? Oh, and, you know, make a face and are concerned, like, isn't that worse than smoking? You don't even know what's in it. And I'm like, actually, I do. This comes from a reputable company and I know exactly what's in it.

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Brent Stafford: Fiona, you'll be participating in a panel discussion titled The Costs of Prohibition at the upcoming Global Forum on Nicotine, the annual conference on safer nicotine products and tobacco harm reduction. GFN 24 runs from this June 13 to 15 in Warsaw, Poland. Let me ask you, why is an event like GFN important?

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Fiona Patten: Like you, Brent, we've been going to GFN for a number of years now. And, you know, A, it's great to have your peers in the room, the people who understand harm reduction. And it's, you know, it's lovely to sort of catch up with your conference brothers and sisters. But also the research that comes out of those conferences and the, you know, the really interesting research that comes out around nicotine. And we know the stigma associated with nicotine research because of tobacco control makes it very difficult to look at the therapeutic qualities of nicotine. So I find that really interesting. I think also we see people attending the conference from all over the world. I think that's really encouraging when we see harm reduction and health practitioners from Africa, from the Kazakhstan's and all the stands in the Uzbekistan and those areas. So we see some of those are developing and emerging countries. getting in early to have an understanding of tobacco harm reduction. And certainly, you know, I mean, we're all in the room together and that's obviously, it's good for the soul and it really re-energises you to keep up these battles because straight after that conference will be about the time that Australia debates the bill that will further prohibit the importation of vapes, whether they contain nicotine or not, and the importation and the possession of vapes in certain circumstances. I mean, this has an effect on our medicinal cannabis patients who were using a vaporizer because they're ill and we don't want any smoke going into or tar going into their bodies. They will now... be unable to get a vape to use as prescribed by their doctor. The unintended consequences of this, and I think for many Australians, we count on our international counterparts to help educate our Australian politicians and health professionals. But also for us, it fills our heart and re-energises us to keep fighting

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Brent Stafford: What do you think the future holds for vaping in Australia?

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Fiona Patten: I am an eternal optimist. I campaigned around drug law reform in many areas. You would have thought a supervised injecting room would be a very difficult thing to get up where people are using illicit drugs. So I'm confident that we will actually win this war. I also think that voters have seen their fathers stop smoking. They've seen their sisters stop smoking. They've seen the benefits of tobacco harm reduction and the benefits of alternative nicotine devices like vaping. It will become an electoral issue. I actually don't think the legislation will pass in June as it's put forward. There certainly seems to be concerns, and these were voiced in that report in dissenting at the end of that report, concerns from probably the majority of members of parliament about these laws and whether they will be effective. So I'm still hopeful that these laws won't pass and that we can start looking at more sensitive alternatives. And look, I know Canada is not perfect. I know New Zealand is not perfect. I know the UK is not perfect, but it's a damn sight better than what we're facing here in Australia.