The minister has written to the Home Affairs Department seeking a tightening of border control measures to prevent nicotine vaping liquids from entering the country.
Almost 300,000 Australians use e-cigarettes, according to the most recent National Drug Strategy Household Survey published in 2017.
The Coalition voted with Labor, the Greens and Centre Alliance in the Senate on Thursday calling on the government to “ban the importation of e-cigarette liquids containing nicotine”, provoking an immediate response from pro-vaping advocates.
The Senate motion also called for regulation of “the manufacture and labelling of e-cigarette liquid to ensure safety and consistency of ingredients in imported and domestically-available products”.
Centre Alliance’s Stirling Griff, who introduced the motion, said the widespread importation of vaping liquids was “very concerning” in the light of thousands of vaping-related lung illness cases in the United States, including dozens of deaths.
“The big concern is the ingredients … you just don’t know what’s in them,” he said.
“There’s no regulation of the labelling or understanding of any of the health implications of what people are taking into their lungs.”
Australian Border Force, which is responsible for administering the law at the border on behalf of the TGA, would not reveal how much liquid nicotine had been seized.
The federal government crackdown comes after the peak body for general practitioners last month released an updated guide for doctors helping patients to quit smoking, cautiously recommending the use of liquid nicotine-based e-cigarettes as a potential second-line aid, calling for a widening of prescribing options for nicotine replacement therapies.
The Australian Medical Association remains opposed to vaping, with president Tony Bartone saying there was “insufficient evidence” e-cigarettes are effective in helping smokers quit and evidence they “normalise smoking, particularly among young people”.
The Australian Retail Vaping Industry Association, a member group of the Australian Retailers Association, hit back against what it described as a “retrograde measure”, with ARA executive director Russell Zimmerman warning vapers would “resume their consumption of traditional cigarettes”.
The ARA receives funding from tobacco companies.
“This will ultimately cost lives,” Mr Zimmerman said.
“Every other OECD nation except Turkey allows adult consumers to purchase vaping products … Vaping products are reducing smoking rates in every country in which they have been legalised.”
Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association founding chairman Colin Mendelsohn said making it difficult for people to buy vaping products would just push them towards smoking and the government was reacting to “hysteria and moral panic”.
“You can buy cigarettes at every corner shop,” he said.
Associate Professor Mendelsohn has been criticised for links to the tobacco and vaping industries, with his association having taken about $43,000 in vaping and tobacco industry-related funding, including for set-up costs in 2017, before halting these donations last year.
He said most vaping deaths in the US had been shown to be linked with cannabis oils and not nicotine, concerns about teen vaping were “totally exaggerated” and the rate of e-cigarette use by teenagers who had not previously been cigarette smokers was “very low”.
“The whole idea of vaping being a gateway to smoking has not been established; we actually think it’s diverting kids away from smoking,” he said.
Associate Professor Mendelsohn agreed vaping products should be regulated for quality and safety, including ingredient labelling and child-proof packaging.
The fact e-cigarettes were largely unregulated “just creates a black market”, he said.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.