JAMES VALENTINE: Dr. John Skerritt, good morning.
JOHN SKERRITT: Yes, good morning, James.
JAMES VALENTINE: It's a pretty straightforward thing, isn't it? Nicotine vape is illegal.
JOHN SKERRITT: Look, it's divided between States and the Commonwealth. Who's responsible for what? The retail sales that tobacconists and all that are illegal in every state and territory of Australia. And yet there's a lot of compliance going on. But as you've indicated, it is still able for people to turn up at their local vape shop and illegally purchase these products. What we regulate at the TGA is the prescription side of things, labelling of the products. We ban certain chemicals in them and we also make sure that they can't be advertised directly. But the sales of them through tobacco shops is illegal and it's regulated by the state.
JAMES VALENTINE: So, regulated by the states. Illegal. And what I've noticed is how many of these tobacco shops there are, if we consider how few people are smoking cigarettes now, there can't be dozens of these tobacco shops. Even if you just look at that, at the sort of numbers of it, can't be dozens of these shops dedicated to selling cigarettes and tobacco to the last remaining smokers in the city.
JOHN SKERRITT: No. And I think we do have a real problem, because the clear intention of the Government is that nicotine vaping products are what we call a second line. So not your first choice. But if someone's having trouble giving up smoking, using gum or patches, and in the opinion of their doctor, they say, well, let's let you try nicotine vaping products for a couple of months and we'll see if they help. There is some evidence and in some people they do work, then that's the way in which they should be provided. But like all prescription medicines, you can only get them legally through a pharmacy.
JAMES VALENTINE: So I'm not even meant to be able to take the prescription to a vape shop?
JOHN SKERRITT: No, vape shops don't fill prescriptions for things. Last time I looked, you have a doctor's prescription from a doctor and dispensed by a pharmacy. Now the pharmacies can be online, but they still require a prescription.
JAMES VALENTINE: Yep. Is it illegal to buy them? Is it illegal to sell nicotine vapes? Could I be charged with buying them?
JOHN SKERRITT: In every state - except it varies - you've got a lot of federation, but it varies a bit from state to state, but my understanding is that in every state except for South Australia, possession is actually illegal unless if you have a prescription. So yes, except for SA, in New South Wales, for example, you're not meant to even buy them and have them.
JAMES VALENTINE: Right.
JOHN SKERRITT: If you haven't got a script.
JAMES VALENTINE: So regardless of how I was getting them, I mean, a lot of people will talk about the shopfront might encourage you to import them from New Zealand, for example, or you know, I might just be bringing, getting them, buying them offline. Possession is illegal as well.
JOHN SKERRITT: Well, you can import them from New Zealand or wherever if you have a doctor's prescription, you can't just go onto the internet and say, hey, send them to me without a script. But if you've got a prescription, that's legal, but not if you don't.
JAMES VALENTINE: Yeah, and I know this is not your jurisdiction as such, but do you have any theory as to why it's not being particularly enforced? We've only had nine charges, you know, nine fines issued in 12 months here in Sydney.
JOHN SKERRITT: Yeah, well we've actually issued a lot more fines here at the Commonwealth level, but that's more for, and I should explain that we also work hand in hand with other groups. We've issued 88 fines in the last nine or ten months alone from 680 investigations. And we've got two court cases and more coming, but they're more related to either illegal advertising, illegal importation or sometimes these joint activities with the states. But look, it's just the sheer size of the problem. And the minister, Minister Butler, the Health Minister, has asked our department, the TGA and colleagues of the Department Health [and Aged Care], to work with the states and territories, to work with Border Force on options to further strengthen compliance. The idea is so teenagers, young adults don't get hooked on nicotine, but people can access them with a doctor's prescription to give up smoking.
JAMES VALENTINE: Yeah. And this is you know, just to clarify, the reason that's why people are confused about it is vaping itself as an action is not illegal. Nicotine vaping is the issue.
JOHN SKERRITT: Yes. So in most states and territories, again, with some subtle differences. But in most states and territories, it's not illegal to purchase vaping equipment if it's used, say, for non nicotine containing products. The problem is that a lot of these so-called non nicotine containing vaping products when our labs have tested them, contain nicotine and we've also commenced fines and are looking at court proceedings against some of those companies when we can track down the company response.
JAMES VALENTINE: Oh, so it'll be advertised as Blueberry Crush, but it's got some nicotine in it.
JOHN SKERRITT: It might have blueberries in it, but it'll also have a lot of nicotine. And something like two thirds or more, even 80 or 90 per cent of them often do have nicotine in them. So one of the things that's being looked at is, does this create too big a loophole, but then with a whole lot of complex issues of law. But again, the aim of any changes are to try to protect kids and stop them getting hooked on nicotine.
JAMES VALENTINE: Yeah. Dr. John Skerritt, thank you so much.