Nicotine-flavoured raspberries

Raspberry ice.

Fuji apple strawberry.

Peaches and pineapple.

Chocolate caramel.

Cotton candy dreams.

The tantalising flavours readily available in Perth, but they are not the flavours of your favourite candy stocked at a local supermarket, or your favourite ice cream flavours in a popular neighbourhood creamery. These are just some of the favourite flavours being inhaled from e-cigarettes by everyday people, but how much do we really know about these devices and what’s in them?

According to the Australian Alcohol and Drug Foundation, an e-cigarette is defined as a battery-operated device used to heat a flavoured liquid to produce a vapour, which is then inhaled. The inhalation is referred to as ‘vaping’, which is a commonly used nickname for e-cigarettes today. The reason why there are serious concerns for individuals who use e-cigarettes today is because these electronic devices may contain nicotine.

According to the American National Cancer Institute, nicotine is an addictive chemical found in tobacco, which can cause an increase in blood pressure and heart rate which may lead to long-term effects.

In Australia, over-the-counter nicotine-free e-cigarettes are accessible to anyone over the age of 18. However, according to the Australian Department of Health, as of October 2021, Australians will need a prescription to be able to purchase e-cigarettes containing nicotine. It is also illegal to distribute and import nicotine e-cigarettes from overseas outlets without a valid prescription from a health practitioner. Despite these restrictions, there are no definitive regulations or laws to monitor and set guidelines for vaping businesses.

Vaping laws by state according to the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association. Graphic: Dhanya Vimalan.

Over the last decade, Australia has seen an uptick in the distribution and consumption of e-cigarettes. Without proper regulation to differentiate which e-cigarettes contain nicotine, Australian Council of Smoking and Health chief executive officer Maurice Swanson fears for the health and safety of young people in Australia.

“E-cigarettes containing nicotine are so readily available nowadays, particularly online, and they are available to a range of age groups,” he says.

“That is a very serious concern for the future health of young people, because there is very good evidence that children who get addicted to nicotine through vaping are three times more likely to go on to smoke traditional cigarettes.”

Swanson also believes the vast choice of flavours is also a contributing factor to the appeal of vaping to young consumers.

“They probably think the flavours are quite cool and trendy, you don’t stink like you do when you smoke cigarettes, it doesn’t get on your hair and clothes, and your breath doesn’t stink as much compared to when you’re smoking a cigarette,” Swanson says.

“It is a perfect product that has been designed for young people and it has been marketed to them extensively on social media platforms.”

Maurice Swanson

Along with the fear of children getting hold of e-cigarettes containing nicotine, integrative medical practitioner and business owner Dr Vanessa is also concerned about the addictiveness of smoking nicotine vapes, as she has experienced it first-hand.

Originally from the Bahamas, Dr Vanessa now practices in New Zealand, and despite a lifelong dedication to health and wellness, during a difficult period in her life she picked up a vape and found it hard to put down.

“Even though I am off it now, I never thought I would ever be on it in the first place,” she says.

Integrative and functional medical practitioner Dr Vanessa. Photo: Supplied.

“From a young age, smoking never appealed to me, and I had no exposure to nicotine at all until I had a 17-year-old stepdaughter who vaped, this was five to six years ago but at the time, I did not know anything about it, and I was amazed by just the pleasantness of it.”

A few years after trying her first vape, Dr Vanessa began looking into the available research surrounding e-cigarettes, and with her background in neurobiology and neurochemistry, she started to piece together the dangerous effects of smoking from nicotine vapes.

“We have these receptors called nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, and when nicotine binds with this receptor, our brain is almost commandeered by this outside chemical creating a really strong effect,” she says.

“When we smoke a cigarette, which has about one to two milligrams of nicotine, it takes a couple of minutes to get your full nicotine dose, the problem with vaping is it’s so concentrated, and the nicotine mixed with the chemicals put into the vape juice, it is extremely overwhelming for the brain.”

With the majority of researchers and health experts continuously generating new information on the dangers and negative impacts of smoking e-cigarettes containing nicotine, it begs the questions: how about those selling nicotine-free e-cigarettes? Many businesses owners in the vaping industry have taken a massive hit due to the generalisation that all e-cigarettes are bad for you, including Stuart Bowerman.

WA E Juice owner Stuart Bowerman (right). Photo: Dhanya Vimalan.

After discovering vaping in Thailand nearly 12 years ago, WA E Juice owner Stuart Bowerman quit smoking and opened his own store selling vapes in Gosnells after requests for nicotine-free e-cigarettes from friends and family.

Bowerman has expressed his disdain for the vaping industry’s black market and calls for more effective regulation.

“We want proper regulation and to stamp out all black market products [because] no legitimate vape shops in Western Australia have anything to do with nicotine products,” he says.

“We want to be recognised as a legitimate business, and industry as a whole, to wipe out the black market and stop kids from vaping, because vapes are ultimately used as a harm reduction tool for smokers.”

Stuart Bowerman is calling for more effective regulations to eradicate the black market. Photo: Dhanya Vimalan.

Without the proper regulation, recognition, and support from governmental bodies, vape businesses like Bowerman’s are left to fend for themselves when faced with negative backlash from the public. With several studies being published about the negative effects vaping has on an individual’s health, there have also been several studies published that demonstrate the use of e-cigarettes is an effective way to quit smoking.

According to Legalise Vaping Australia, there have been several studies conducted by institutes which demonstrate smoke-free products, like vaping, are less harmful than traditional cigarettes. For example, a study conducted by researchers in the United Kingdom found e-cigarettes meet the needs of most former smokers by replacing physical, psychological, and cultural aspects of tobacco addiction, and showed that vaping was a long-term substitute for smoking.

This study is one of many that have sparked the conversation about whether nicotine-free e-cigarettes can realistically replace traditional cigarettes, and Vaping Association of Australia chairman Rhys Callender is frustrated people cannot see the good in vaping.

Callender’s foray into the vaping industry came after he quit smoking through vaping, and he started his own business Clouded Visions in 2015, manufacturing vapes for roughly 13 different companies around Australia. A month ago, he and several other members of the WA vaping community banded together to form the Vaping Association of Australia, a unified national body to raise industry-related concerns to the government.

Clouded Visions owner and Vaping Association of Australia chairman Rhys Callender. Photo: Dhanya Vimalan.

With only less than one per cent of general practitioners being registered to prescribe a vape in WA, the demand for nicotine vapes has increased, allowing room for the black market to flourish.

“Smuggling in nicotine vapes is easy because they don’t state the nicotine content on them, and now you have various people on Facebook marketplace and local convenience stores who are bringing them in and selling them to anyone who wants them, including kids, without any regulation,” Callender says.

“And because we have ‘vape shop’ written on our doors, we are the ones suffering because of it, we cannot compete with the illegal market.”

To try to eliminate the black market and implement regulation, the VAA has launched a petition with the WA government, calling for a better system and effective guidelines to be put in place to provide access and consumer protection to Australians who wish to access safe vaping products from legal retailers.

The petition aims to bring attention to the black market’s success in using children to drive their products. Callender believes by implementing safer and more effective regulations, children and teenagers will be protected from illegal products, while giving the public the right to choose a safer alternative to smoking.

“At the moment, WA is in the worst boat because the entire definition of vaping being legal or illegal is based on one excerpt of the Tobacco Control Act saying you cannot sell a product that resembles a cigarette,” Callender says.

“There are no specific laws surrounding vaping, it is entirely open to interpretation of the Health Department, and that interpretation can change at any moment.”

Callender also believes there is nothing being done to support the vaping community in Australia because of the public’s negative perception surrounding vaping.

“The common arguments with regards to vaping as a gateway to smoking is that legalising it will push more children to vape, but that has not happened in places like the UK or New Zealand where they have adopted much better models,” he says.

“In fact, based on their data, there is less youth vaping in the UK then there is here even though it is legal to buy from vape shops.”

Callender also blames fear mongering by the media which results in negative public assumptions, such as the story of popcorn lung.

Rhys Callender explains the popcorn lung hysteria in the media. Video: Dhanya Vimalan.

Experts worry the popularity of the vaping black market is growing, and if government bodies do not step in soon to implement the necessary regulations, more children might soon be inhaling more of their favourite ice cream flavours, with a dash of nicotine.