Sydney tobacconists still selling illegal vapes, three months after import ban

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As states and territories battle to get on top of the country’s vaping crisis, tobacconists are still openly selling illegal nicotine vapes, albeit at higher prices.

On Darlinghurst Rd, the main drag of Sydney’s former red light district of Kings Cross, vape sales dominate – all you have to do is ask.

The street is infamous for having nine vape-slinging tobacconists in a short 300m strip.

When approached by NCA NewsWire, all nine stores had supply. In one larger store, a whole cabinet was filled with disposable vapes of varying sizes, brands and flavours.

Small print on the packaging clearly identified they contained nicotine.

Spotting the display, two tradies on the hunt for a 2pm soft drink remarked: “I thought they banned them.”

However, for some, the effects of the ban appear to be slowly taking effect.

At one tobacconist, a worker believed they only had supply to last them for the next two or three weeks; a clerk at a different store put that figure at a month.

Another shopkeeper claimed they received drops from suppliers every one to two days, which meant estimating future stock levels difficult.

He said that while hole-in-the-wall shops like his were more targeted by NSW Health raids, larger chain convenience stores had larger supply networks and could weather the stings.

Following one operation in January, he claimed he saw a shop across the road make a call to their supplier before they received a new shipment later that afternoon.

However, on the whole, workers agreed that vape prices had been steadily on the incline since January.

The popular 3500-puff Iget bar, which sold between $15 to $20 last year, is now $45. One retailer believed they’d soon increase to $50.

Another shop assistant, who personally vaped, said vapes were easier to obtain, and cheaper, in western Sydney suburbs Auburn and Blacktown.

When asked whether stores were worried how a ban on vapes would affect profits, shopkeepers appeared unaffected.

One worker even claimed customers were switching from vaping to smoking, with sales for cigarettes increasing.

“Before we had high stocks of cigarettes, now we have less,” he said.

“Cigarettes are expensive but we make $10 or $15 a pack.”

It’s a sting for long-term public health measures that have pushed Australia’s daily smoking rates to the lowest among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

In NSW, nicotine vapes have technically been illegal since October 2021, unless obtained via a prescription from a doctor, and can only legally be purchased from a pharmacy.

However, rules were as easily circumvented then as they are now.

At the time, one Potts Point tobacconist flouted restrictions by asking customers to present a photo of a hand-drawn card. Doing so would allow you to purchase the contraband product, no questions asked.

Gradually, the cards allowed loyal customers to buy vapes at a discounted price.

Fast forward two and a half years, blatant rule flaunting still exists. Over in Sydney’s south one tobacconist offered customers loyalty cards, advertising a “buy 10, get one free” deal.

In a card obtained by NCA NewsWire, the most recent stamp was dated to March 23 of this year.

NSW Health Minister Ryan Park has frequently described vaping as the “biggest public health crisis confronting young Australians” and admits that “governments across all jurisdictions have been caught behind”.

This year, the state injected $6.8m into tackling the vaping crisis through public health messaging targeted at young people and investing more money into enforcement operations.

While import controls have been tightened to stop the illegal devices from entering into the country, Mr Park said it would take time for existing supply to run out.

“The border ban on these devices should have a significant impact on the flow of supply into the country and therefore into NSW,” Mr Park said.

“Naturally, we expect there will be a lag effect on the availability of these products as authorities continue to seize and remove them from our streets.

“It will take time but it’s the right thing to do and it’s what health experts are calling for.”

Speeding up the process are raids undertaken by NSW Health, NSW Police and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

In January and February of this year, large-scale operations in Sydney metro led to the seizure of more than 45,000 nicotine vapes, 325kg of flavoured and loose-leaf tobacco and 564 nicotine pouches.

The combined haul, collected from 106 retailers, had an estimated street value of more than $2m.

“NSW Health has an active compliance and enforcement program relating to the sale

of illegal tobacco products and e-cigarettes (vapes) and is working to reduce the

prevalence of tobacco and e-cigarette use in NSW,” a NSW Health spokesperson said.

Mr Park added that he was working with NSW Attorney-General Michael Daley to ensure the state’s laws were fit for purpose, adding that he is open to tightening regulations and laws to ensure “compliance and enforcement efforts” are successful.

“NSW is working with the Commonwealth on the much-awaited prohibition on non-nicotine devices from being sold by retail outlets,” Mr Park said.

“We’re going to have more to say about this in due course but we are determined to get it right.”

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